Tax on red and processed meat could save lives, says study

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The question of a "meat tax" has been hotly debated across the media, after researchers at the University of Oxford claimed it could prevent nearly 6,000 deaths per year and more than £700m in healthcare costs in the UK. To fully cover costs, the researchers say, the taxes would have to double. This includes hot dogs (frankfurters), ham, sausages, corned beef, and beef jerky - as well as canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces.

Scientists set out to calculate the level of health tax needed to make up for healthcare costs associated with eating meat in 149 regions around the world.

Like taxes on other products that can harm health, a health tax on red and processed meat could encourage consumers to make healthier choices.

In the United States, an "optimal" tax would see red meat cost 34 per cent more and processed meat an extra 163 per cent.

But public health nutritionist and dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel, said meat consumption had already declined significantly, with average intakes now well below NHS guidelines.

Lead researcher Dr Marco Springmann, from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at Oxford University, said: "The consumption of red and processed meat exceeds recommended levels in most high and middle-income countries".

In the United Kingdom, the "optimal" tax level increased the cost of red meat by 14% and processed meat by 79%.

Higher taxes on processed meat were also expected to cause consumers to switch to eating more unprocessed meat.

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The health taxes on sausages in Germany, and bacon in the U.S., for example would increase prices by a whopping 160%.

But the study is a useful reminder that eating a lot of processed meat in particular does have an impact on health.

The global benefits of a meat tax included a 16% reduction in processed meat consumption, and the prevention of 222,000 deaths from cancer, heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. Due to its relatively modest healthcare spending the United Kingdom is somewhere in the middle with an 80% increase.

Regular consumption of processed meat has also been linked to a 9 percent higher risk of breast cancer, according to an analysis of various scientific studies that was published in October.

Several studies have shown red meat to be harmful in the long run when consumed regularly. It could also have positive knock-on effects on climate change and body weight. The researchers found it would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by over one hundred million tonnes, mainly due to lower beef consumption, and reduce levels of obesity by driving consumers to lower-calorie substitutions.

The theoretical taxes in the study would raise $172 billion globally each year, and cover around 70% of health care costs.

Reading the news today it looks possible, especially with academics quoted in national newspapers saying it is "inevitable" that a red meat tax will come into force.

Our findings make it clear that the consumption of red and processed meat has a cost - not just to people's health and to the planet - but also to healthcare systems and the economy. British pork is much loved by British public, who would not take kindly to being told to pay more for it and eat less of it. And making sure the health costs of foods are reflected in their prices is an important component of that.

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