Science News 05/03/2012

Taxing junk foods can be a bad idea

The debate about junk foods is very hot in Italy at the moment. According to the nutritionist Andrea Ghiselli, classifying food as bad or good is simply wrong. The “cure” could have boomerang effects

The idea of imposing a tax on alcohol and junk foods is very debated in Italy at the moment. The main discussion is between the food producers and the nutritionists, which judge what is good and what is bad to eat every day, and how to have a healthy life style.

Let’s start from a nutritionist that from many years suggests to Italians what are the good diet practices to be followed.

Andrea Ghiselli, Scientists and Communication manager at the INRAN, Italian Institute for Research of food and nutrition, is skeptic about the idea of taxing junk foods.

“I don’t judge the idea of taxing food since it is out of my area of experience, but what I can say is that it should not be done in order to ameliorate the quality of the food consumed. This is a non-sense. It is true that we are always short of money for campaigns on prevention and education about food, but applying a tax on “bad” foods can be even worst, and can create even more confusion. Classifying foods as good or bad is simply a bad food-education policy. What is a junk food? A food with a high content of fats? of calories? of sugars? of salt? Then it is junk food the vast majority of the Italian traditional cuisine, from olive oil to Parmesan cheese and prosciutto. Moreover, if we consider as junk foods snacks and carbonate drinks, they represent a tiny percentage of the caloric income of the Italian population. Still people are pointing at them as the responsible for fattening.”

Then, according to Ghiselli, the intention is good but the strategy is completely wrong. “We must teach the consumers to adapt their caloric income to their actual energetic consumption. We have to explain people the difference between a sedimentary life and exercise, not the difference between bad and good foods. This second strategy would just divert public’s attention from the attention to a proper life style”.

If we ask for the opinion of food producers then, the position is even more radical. Filippo Ferrua Magliani, head of Federalimentare, the Italian association of food and drink producers, rejects the idea of taxing bad food since this is done just as a compensation of lowered Regional investments in public health. And this is wrong for two reasons. On the one hand, this is wrong as a matter of principle: “I think, and the Italian food Industry association thinks, that this is a bad idea since the health of citizens can not the obtained by increasing the taxation but by educating them. Bad foods do not exist. It is just a matter of timing and quantity of consumption. At this regard Federalimentari already signed two protocols with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health, called Scuola e Cibo and Guadagnare salute, respectively, for the regulation of food products communication and advertisement to children”.

On the other hand, the second reason concerns the effects of the proposed tax. “There is a vast scientific literature showing that policies that try to penalize the consumption of some foods considered as bad are ineffective. As a matter of fact, besides creating a distortion in market competition and reinforcing recession, these policies induce paradoxical effects. When consumers, forced not to compress inelastic consumes, such as petrol, which is indispensable, face a price increase of elastic products, they tend to choose the cheap and lower quality versions of these products. This is detrimental to the consumers’ spending power and diet quality. Hence, the effect would be the opposite of the desired one, together with bad repercussion on the workers of our field”.

di S. C.