Bill Wirtz examines the shortcomings of the proposed tax on red meat.
In a recent publication for the University of Oxford, Dr. Marco Springmann and James Martin, both Fellows at the Oxford Martin School argue for the introduction of additional taxes on red meat. Springmann makes the case that taxing products such as bacon could save thousands of lives every year, due to the meat’s association with higher chances heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes.
Most striking is the regressiveness of a meat tax. All too often, the people suggesting these taxes are not the ones most affected by them. Even if a red meat tax were introduced, “public health advocates” could still afford as much meat as they choose to pay for. That is not the case for the poorest in society. Like for any other consumption tax, it’s the poorest who are most affected by the measure compared to higher earners. Unless we are sympathetic to the idea that the poor should be more overprotected than those that high-income earners, a meat tax would be socially unjust.
It’s saddening that in a world where paternalism is taking over, there is a need to defend one thing: consumers should be allowed to enjoy themselves. Yes, they should be made aware of the health risks associated with their lifestyles, but ultimately it should be up to the individual to choose for themselves what they want to eat. If not, then it won’t end there: once consumers give up red meat, proponents of the Nanny State will just find a new angle through which they trample upon enjoyment. At least today, if you’re looking to live to 120 and be boring, you can do it without impeding on the free choices of others.
But we should not only quarrel with the principle, but also with the statistics.
The essential claim is that processed meat is a danger to public health, as it is associated with an increased risk of cancer. The “associated with” are quite the important key words here, especially since they are being repeated so often. Everything you consume is essentially carcinogenic, and can therefore be linked to different cancers. The question is how dangerous it is exactly. The study Springmann bases his claims on is a 2011 meta-analysis from the Paris Institute of Technology for Life, Food and Environmental Sciences, which says this:
“The preventability of colorectal cancer in theUnited Kingdom through reduced consumption of red meat, increased fruit and vegetables, increased physical activity, limited alcohol consumption and weight control was estimated to be 31.5 per cent of colorectal cancer in men and 18.4 per cent in women.”
You may have noticed here that reducing red meat consumption is just one out of five key characteristics that people would have to follow in order to cut down their risk of colorectal cancer by up to a third (for men). If you narrow it down only to red meat consumption, you find a possible risk reduction in the UK of five per cent, provided the person was eating more than 80g of red meat per day. So yes, certain people can reduce their risk of certain cancers to a certain degree if they limit their consumption of red meat.
However, this is only true if people reduce their consumption of red meat without offsetting it with any other consumption.
It seems that there is an unfortunate disinterest of public health advocates for the occurrence of unintended consequences. If you limit access to one product, people are likely to find alternative routes to consume that product elsewhere. Take the example of Denmark’s fat tax, introduced in the same year that the Paris meta-analysis was published. In October 2011, Denmark’s leading coalition introduced a tax on fattening foods and beverages, such as butter, milk, cheese, meat, pizza, and oil, as long as they contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat. After fifteen months, the same parliamentary majority repealed the tax, as the Danes recognised the measure to be a failure.
Still, a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that in the months during the implemented tax, the sale of these foods fell by between 10 and 15 per cent. But, this does not account for the stockpiling or hoarding effect that the Danes experienced prior to the introduction of the tax: in fact, when analysing the effects over the 15 months during which the tax was in effect in Denmark, we saw a marginal drop of 0.9 per cent in consumption of fatty foods and beverages, which lies within the margin of error.
What exactly British consumers will do when presented with a massive tax hike on red meat is hard to tell at this point, but it certainly isn’t as clear-cut as public health advocates would like it to appear. The fact that they don’t account for possible unintended consequences shows more of an activist behaviour than one of scientific research.