It is estimated that diet-related ill health costs the NHS £5.8 billion annually - more than smoking, alcohol, or physical inactivity.
In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote is often taken out of context - this being no exception - however, what if taxes could actually be used to prevent deaths? Or at least reduce harm to ourselves and the planet?
Scientists at Oxford University calculated that a red and processed meat tax would prevent many premature deaths while simultaneously raising millions in tax revenue and reducing NHS costs. This would mean that products like sausages and bacon would double in price, when taking into account the harm they cause to people’s health.
The Vegan Society welcomes a proposed meat tax, but only if implemented alongside other policies.
Red and processed meats have been shown to be very unhealthy; the World Health Organisation classifies processed meat as a carcinogen - unprocessed red meat is also classified as probably carcinogenic. Diets high in red and processed meats have also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and strokes.
It is estimated that diet-related ill health costs the NHS £5.8 billion annually - more than smoking, alcohol, or physical inactivity. Businesses and the economy as a whole suffer through missed work days due to sickness.
Red meat also has a detrimental impact on the environment due to high levels of land use, water use and greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study in the journal Science concluded that cutting consumption of meat is “the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact".
A meat tax would encourage people to make healthier, more environmentally-friendly, longer-term diet choices whilst also saving £700m in NHS costs and an estimated 6,000 premature deaths every year in the UK.
So why is a proposal with such clear benefits not met with unanimous approval?
Martin Daubney, former editor of Loaded magazine, offered his considered contribution to the debate: “We should tax vegans, because this is an absolute nonsense.” Details of Martin’s ‘vegan tax’ proposals and how they would benefit public health or the environment remain unclear at the time of writing.
Other commentators raise more coherent concerns, for example, that a meat tax would be regressive, unfairly impacting the poorest in our society. We do not advocate for a regressive tax. Instead we would want to see a meat tax combined with other changes to reduce prices on healthier products and to increase understanding of healthy cooking. Incentivising healthy food would mean that individuals do not need to spend more on food overall.
Opponents also object on the grounds that this is another unnecessary government intervention - the ‘nanny state’ argument. What they seemingly forget is that the government already intervenes and taxes many products with undesirable outcomes, like tobacco, alcohol and, more recently, sugar. The public widely accepts government interventions in cases where the market is clearly producing unwanted outcomes - cancer, alcoholism, childhood obesity.
There is debate on whether a meat tax would actually reduce red and processed meat consumption, however, examples in other areas show that taxes can be highly effective at instigating behavioural change.
The plastic-bag levy, although very small at 5p per bag, has resulted in a dramatic decline in the number given out by supermarkets. This shows that nudges towards favourable outcomes can be influenced by even relatively modest taxes. When considering just health outcomes, the Oxford report calculates the optimal meat tax for the UK at 14 percent for red meat and 79 percent for processed meat, far higher than the 5p plastic bag levy, indicating it would have a major impact on consumer behaviour.
Another argument against, is that a meat tax is too unpopular with voters for it to be politically viable. Research from Chatham House in 2015 found that opposition to a meat tax significantly softened when the harms were explained. Respondents also expected governments to take the lead action on issues that are for the global good, including in food policy. Additionally, meat tax revenues could be used to make healthier foods more affordable, further sweetening the deal for the consumer.
Despite the clear benefits for public health, the environment and the public purse, a meat tax alone is not enough to induce the changes required. We would like to see a meat tax implemented alongside complimentary policies designed to elicit the most benefit from our food and farming system. Ultimately, healthy foods should be more affordable than unhealthy foods.
The Vegan Society and New Economics Foundation’s Grow Green report, highlights a range of policy measures to fix the UK’s broken food system. The report focuses on increasing protein crop production (peas, beans, lentils etc.) which are simultaneously affordable, ethical, sustainable and healthy - neatly described as a ‘win-win-win-win’.
The recommended measures include incentives encouraging farmers to switch from animal protein, funding research for crop development, a farm entry scheme for budding protein-crop farmers and increasing availability of protein crops on menus in hospitals and schools. These policy recommendations encourage a shift away from animal agriculture towards a plant-based system, which is healthier and more sustainable than our current failing model.
An alternative to a meat tax, which has similar outcomes, is an economy-wide carbon tax. This would be levied relative to the amount of carbon emissions associated with each product’s production. In terms of food, the highest carbon emitters are ruminant livestock such as cows and sheep. This would increase the price of the worst offending products, thereby reducing consumption of red meat, whilst raising tax revenue.
It is clear that we need to make drastic changes to avert major public health and environmental catastrophes.
A meat tax would make a good starter. However, it would be best served with our accompanying suggestions.
Mark Banahan is Campaigns and Policy Officer at The Vegan Society and a keen vegan and political activist. If you would like to learn more about veganism, sign up to the 7-day challenge here.