Food taxes are apparently proliferating, all over Europe. Finland introduced taxes on sugared products; France now has a special tax on all soft drinks and Hungary increased taxes on food with high fat, sugar and salt content.

The trailblazers on this road were, rather ironically, the Danes. Denmark introduced a “fat tax”, a tariff on saturated fats, in 2011. The world’s first fat tax had rather perverse, albeit not unforeseeable, effects. As the Economist reported, “a study found 48% of Danes doing some cross-border shopping”.

The blowback was so apparent that politicians did something they never easily do: in 2012 they rolled back the very tax they themselves had introduced.

The University of Copenhagen has released a study that somehow critically assesses such a decision. The authors maintain that the tax served the designed purpose, in terms of reduced fat consumption. But apparently they focused on consumption merely of oils, butter and margarine, whereas of course the tax had far a wider impact. On the “EU Food Policy,” a gated website and magazine for those interested in debates surrounding food policy and the food industry, my colleague Massimiliano Trovato so expressed his skepticism on those findings:
“Bottom line: focusing on the consumption of a few given products, failing to measure the policy-induced substitution and the overall impact on dietary habits, will hardly advance our understanding of how effectively fat taxes work. Health-related effects remain undetermined, while economic consequences came through loud and clear.”

The point Massimiliano makes is that the math, so to say, of food taxes in term of health-related output is very difficult to calculate. That was always my impression too: diet is hardly the only factor of risk affecting an individual’s health and life.

On a different note, if we could just “nudge” people to move in the direction of safer food consumption, why shouldn’t we? Don Boudreaux, quoted here by Bryan Caplan, explained persuasively that “nudging” is actually old fashioned coercion right from the outset.

A society stays together because of some collectively shared taboos. Can we even imagine a free society, in which the word ‘free’ maintains some intelligible meaning, that doesn’t share the taboo that peoples’ diets shouldn’t be regulated from the government?