Globesity – the Big Picture

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Spiegel reporter Catherine Cheney interviewed Carolyn Banfalvi, who guides tourists around Hungary on gourmet tours. This expert, in a position to know exactly what the local diet consists of, is quoted as saying:

Hungarians are really into desserts… the salads are just different plates of pickled vegetables… What they call bacon here is often pieces of pure lard…

Apparently, the national cuisine also involves copious amounts of goose fat. Last fall, the government ruffled some feathers by instituting a “fat tax.” Cheney says:

The Hungarian government argues that this kind of diet is also leading to obesity and increased health problems, and that those who partake in indulgences like sweets should also pay a premium to help offset those costs… Hungarians will have to pay… tax on foods with high fat, sugar and salt content, as well as increased tariffs on soda and alcohol… In other words, the new law is based on the idea that those whose diets land them in the hospital should help foot the bill…

This piece, incidentally, comes with a terrific chart titled “Obesity Rates Among Adults in Europe,” a very interesting hunk of information graphic whose information compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Eurostat Statistics Database, and the World Health organization. In that neck of the woods, the fattest country is Great Britain, with 24.5% of its population obese, followed by Ireland, Malta, Iceland, and Luxembourg. The skinniest is Romania, with only 7.9% of its population obese, going up from there with Switzerland, Italy, Norway, and Sweden.

The results of Hungary’s new tough-love policy will be closely watched by other European countries, all of whose budgets are being strained by healthcare costs. Some others have in fact already begun taxing unhealthy foods.

Austria and Switzerland, Cheney says, have already banned trans fats, following the example set by Denmark, which has become very strict. Denmark has been taxing candy for almost 90 years, and, of course, a tax is in place on sugar-sweetened beverages. Finland, also imitating Denmark, taxes soda, chocolate, and ice cream. Romania, already the slimmest of European countries, wanted to expand its already large array of taxes, but Cheney explains why the legislation didn’t go through:

The idea was axed after the government considered its potential impact on consumers, particularly given rising food prices. There were also concerns that the tax might lead low-income Romanians to resort to even cheaper products, potentially worsening their diets.

The same argument can be made in Hungary, but they are going ahead anyway. The reporter obtained this comprehensive explanation from Lisa McCooey of Food Drink Europe, described as “an industry lobby group”:

The Hungarian tax is a tax on products with high sugar, salt, and/or caffeine; taxable products include soft drinks with added sugar, energy drinks with added sugar and caffeine, pre-packaged sweetened products, salty snacks, high salt content condiments, soup mixes, gravy mixes and bases.

But McCooey is also the reporter’s source for the bad news. Her organization feels that:

Scientific research shows that taxation is not an effective instrument in addressing consumer behavior and will have no impact on obesity rates. Consumer information and education, not tax, is the way to advance consumer understanding of healthy eating.

Hmmm. Sounds like something a lobbyist would say.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Hungary Introduces ‘Fat Tax,’”Spiegel.de, 09/01/11
Source: “Obesity Rates Among Adults in Europe,”Spiegel.de, 09/01/11
Image by Nico Crisafulli, used under its Creative Commons license.

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