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Lifting the heavy burden of obesity

16 August 2012

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Adrian Kay is currently Professor of Politics & Public Policy at Swansea University and Honorary Professor in the Crawford School at the ANU. He also has an affiliation with Universiti Brunei Darussalam, where he was Senior Professor in the Institute of Policy Studies between 2017 and 2019.

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Could a tax on highly processed foods help change consumer behaviour about the over consumption of food? That's the subject of an ABC Big Ideas show featuring Professor Adrian Kay from the Crawford School.

The show features a panel discussion including Associate Professor Adrian Kay from the Crawford School and Professor Sharon Friel from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health in the ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment.

Professor Friel says that a so-called ‘Fat Tax’ has the potential to save millions of lives and billions of dollars, and that although the panel may not agree with every aspect of a food tax, something needs to be done to reduce the levels of obesity in Australia.

“There is a large financial burden on Australia’s health and social systems as a result of the obesity crisis in Australia. Taxing foods would not only raise public revenue but it could also help reduce the medical costs associated with obesity,” said Professor Friel

“A recent Australian report found that a ten per cent tax on unhealthy food could significantly reduce the burden of disease associated with obesity.”

Professor Friel said that while a food tax could present a greater financial burden to those on low incomes compared to higher income groups, there were ways to support low income households to change consumption habits towards more healthy options.

“People in lower income households are more price sensitive than high income groups. For example, it has been found that changing the price of fruit and vegetables affects the intake of these foods among low income groups more than in their higher income counterparts,” said Professor Friel.

“One option to make a food tax a fairer tax is to provide a subsidy on healthy foods. A study in New Zealand which offered a 12.5 per cent price reduction at the supermarket checkout on healthier food options found that people bought a significantly higher quantity of healthy foods.

Professor Friel said that another way to introduce a food tax is to do it further up the food supply chain.

“Perhaps taxing ultra-processed foods at the point of production could encourage manufacturers to alter their food products, thus promoting more healthy options,” said Professor Friel.

“These tax and subsidy options are just one small part of a much broader response that is needed to create a shift in the current culture of overconsumption of highly processed foods.”

Listen to the show: Introducing a fat tax - Big Ideas.

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