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Fat tax in Denmark: Why they have it; could it happen in U.S.? [Updated]

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October 03, 2011|By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times/For the Booster Shots blog
  • Butter and other foods high in saturated fats became subject to a new "fat tax" in Denmark on Saturday.
Butter and other foods high in saturated fats became subject to a new "fat… (Matthew Mead/Associated…)

The Food Police have stormed Denmark, where it is now a little more expensive to eat fattening food.

The country’s so-called “fat tax” went into effect on Saturday. The tax rate is 16 Danish kroner per kilogram of saturated fat in a food — in terms Americans can understand, that’s about $1.29 per pound of saturated fat – and it kicks in when the saturated fat content of a food item exceeds 2.3%.


For the Record, 1:37 p.m. Oct. 4: An earlier version of this online article incorrectly said that Danes pay the equivalent of $6.27 per pound of saturated fat in their food when saturated fat exceeds 2.3%. The correct figure is $1.29

The complex formula takes into account the amount of fat used to produce a particular food, not the amount that’s in the final product, according to Ole Linnet Juul, food director at Denmark’s Confederation of Industries. He calculated that the tax adds 12 cents to a bag of chips, 39 cents to a small package of butter and 40 cents to the price of a hamburger.

If this seems like a radical move, consider that Denmark has already banned the use of trans fats, which many doctors say is the worst kind because it raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol at the same time. Danes also pay sin taxes on sugary items like soda and candy. But the fat tax is believed to be the first of its kind in the world, Linnet Juul told the Associated Press.

The law was passed by a government the Associated Press describes as “conservative.” And while the fat tax may be a first, it may soon be joined by similar taxes in Finland and Romania.

In the United States, advocates of sin taxes for unhealthy foods don’t seem to be getting close to implementing a soda tax on sugar-sweetened beverages despite years of lobbying.

The fat tax isn’t aimed at curbing obesity. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the obesity rate in Denmark was 13.4% last year, below the European average of 15.5%. But Denmark lags in terms of life expectancy, and the country hopes the measure will increase the average lifespan by three years over the next decade.

When then-health minister Jakob Axel Nielsen proposed a variety of sin taxes on unhealthy foods in 2009, he explained that “higher fees on sugar, fat and tobacco is an important step on the way toward a higher average life expectancy in Denmark.” The fat tax was especially critical because “saturated fats can cause cardiovascular disease and cancer,” he said, according to the AP.

(For those who may be tempted to call for Nielsen’s job, please note that he stepped down as minister for health and prevention last year. Prior to that post, he served briefly as Denmark’s minister of traffic and minister of energy.)

The Danes are taking the fat tax in stride. The Guardian visited a park in Copenhagen and spoke with Mathias Buch Jensen, who said the tax wouldn’t cause him to change his eating habits:

Asked if he would be giving up butter, he offered a compromise: "I would fry cabbage in butter, and add a little more butter at the end. That way at least I'm getting my vegetables."

In South Jutland, ABC News caught up with Alisa Clausen, who seemed to be of two minds regarding the fat tax. “In theory this is good – it makes unhealthy items expensive so that we do not consume as much,” she said. But she added that the fat tax and other sin taxes have a “Big Brother feeling. We should not be punished by taxes on items the government decides we should not use.”

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