A price-hiking “meat tax” could prevent almost 6,000 deaths per year in the UK and save the economy more than £70 million in avoided healthcare costs, say researchers Globally, meat taxes could save an estimated 220,000 lives by 2020 and reduce healthcare costs by £30.7 billion, a study has found.
The research is based on evidence linking consumption of “red” meat – such as beef, lamb and pork – to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
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. They also estimated the likely impact of a meat tax on death rates due to chronic disease.
By 2020, consumption of red and processed meat was likely to cause 2.4 million deaths per year and cost the global economy 285 billion US dollars (£219 billion), the study found. Meat tax levels high enough to be effective varied from country to country.
In the UK, the “optimal” tax level increased the cost of red meat by 14% and processed meat by 79%. Despite the huge impact on the price of burgers, sausages, mince and steak, the scientists behind the study called on all governments to consider imposing meat taxes.
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.
“This is having significant impacts not only on personal health, but also on healthcare systems, which are taxpayer-funded in many countries, and on the economy, which is losing its labor force due to ill health and care for family members who fall ill.
“I hope that governments will consider introducing a health levy on red and processed meat as part of a range of measures to make healthy and sustainable decision-making easier for consumers.
“A health levy on red and processed meat would not limit choices, but send a powerful signal to consumers and take pressure off our healthcare systems. Nobody wants governments to tell people what they can and can’t eat.
“However, 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 the healthcare systems and the economy.”
The World Health Organization has classified beef, lamb and pork as carcinogenic when eaten in processed form, and “probably” cancer-causing when consumed unprocessed.
Red meat consumption has also been associated with increased rates of coronary heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
The study, published in the journal Public Library of Science ONE, indicated that a health tax could reduce consumption of processed meat such as bacon and sausages by about two portions per week in high-income countries.