Fast Food Tax

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Can France Tax Its Way Out of an Obesity Crisis?

Or do the French just need to cut down on the croissants?

France is suffering from an obesity crisis, and it’s not because the population is eating too much cheese and croissants.

The country has long been famous for a nutritional anomaly known as the “French paradox” — the French can eat foods high in fat, calories, and cholesterol, but still remain slim… until recently. With 15 percent of the population obese, and another 32 percent overweight, the French government has waged war on what it believes to be the actual culprit: fast food.

Weight-related illnesses are costing the French government around 23.5 billion euros ($26.4 billion) a year, and according to the French Treasury, “although obese or overweight people represent a little less than half of the population, they account for a much higher share of health expenditures.”

Fast food restaurants already have a foothold in France, with McDonald’s calling the country its “most profitable country outside the U.S.” The French perceives its own culinary culture as the envy of the world, and the thought of their country falling victim to of the vastly inferior fast food craze has the government looking for extreme solutions.

To simultaneously deter the public from eating fast food, and also to generate revenue, the country’s treasury is considering increasing an existing value-added tax (VAT) on fast food. The top VAT rate — which currently affects select items such as caviar, sweets, and vegetable fats such as palm oil — would also be applied to fast food, raising the tax from 5.5 percent to 20 percent. France already has a tax on carbonated sugary beverages that brings in around 400 million euros ($450 million) every year, and a tax on Red Bull that brings in another 3 million euros ($3.37 million) annually, but these have failed to curb people’s consumption of the beverages.

Unfortunately, these taxes disproportionately affect the economically disadvantaged. Research published in The American Journal of Public Health showed that “small excise taxes are likely to yield substantial revenue, but are unlikely to affect obesity rates, (and) high excise taxes are likely to have a direct impact on weight in at risk populations, but are less likely to be… politically palatable.” Ultimately, it would be difficult for France to tax its way out of an obesity problem. Alternative solutions, such as blocking advertisements geared towards children or increased nutritional education efforts, may be more effective.  

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