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A tax on meat could prevent 220,000 deaths a year

A new study finds that raising the cost of meat through taxes could save lives and help the environment. Are you ready for the steak tax?

A tax on meat could prevent 220,000 deaths a year
[Image: Arrowhead/Pixabay]

Soda taxes make people drink less soda, and presumably also help avoid some of the health risks of drinking nine teaspoons of sugar per can of Coke. A new study suggests that governments should also consider taxing meat.

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The study, which looked at the impacts of taxing red and processed meat, calculated that a tax could prevent more than 220,000 deaths globally in a year, and save more than $40 billion in health care costs.

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s cancer agency classified red meat as carcinogenic if it’s processed–as in hot dogs, beef jerky, or sausages–and said that it’s probably carcinogenic even if it’s not processed. Red and processed meat is also linked to higher rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.

“It all raises the question: Maybe we should regulate red and processed meat similar to other carcinogens like tobacco or asbestos, or some of the other foods that have demonstrable negative health impacts and that are increasingly regulated, like sugary drinks,” says Marco Springmann, a senior researcher at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the Centre on Population Approaches for Non-Communicable Disease Prevention at the University of Oxford, who led the study.

[Photo: camij/iStock]

The researchers estimated how much red meat affects the risks of different diseases and how much those diseases cost to treat, and then calculated the impact of each additional portion of meat. Then they calculated an optimal tax that could help account for those health costs. A meat tax, he says, could also be used to subsidize fruits and vegetables or to help farmers and butchers transition away from red meat.

In a country like the U.S., where people eat more meat than the global average and also spend more on health care, the tax would increase the price of red meat by 160%. In Ethiopia, where people eat little meat and have low health care costs, prices would increase less than 1%.

In the U.S., the tax might result in people eating three fewer portions of red, processed meat each week. That reduced consumption would result in about 53,000 fewer deaths each year and save around $20 billion in health care costs. Since meat also has a massive environmental footprint, reducing consumption would also cut greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, the researchers estimate, taxes would cut emissions by around 100 million metric tons.

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The challenge, of course, is getting public support for a meat tax. Denmark attempted a tax on saturated fat–which mainly impacted meat–and then had to withdraw it because of the backlash. Springmann argues that part of the problem was that the tax was badly designed; it made up for a lowering of income tax that happened at the same time, so the benefit wasn’t visible. “Nobody saw the benefit,” he says. “Whereas if you look at the example of sugary drinks taxes in places like Mexico, the revenues are usually used to install clean water fountains. So people immediately see that as an alternative that they can switch to rather than sort of having something tucked away in their income taxes.”

The theoretical taxes in the study would raise $172 billion globally each year, and cover around 70% of health care costs. To fully cover costs, the researchers say, the taxes would have to double.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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