Salt taxes/health: reasoning over seasoning

Salt taxes have changed the course of history, inspiring revolution. It was with a lump of self-dug salt that Mahatma Gandhi “[shook] the foundations of the British empire”. France’s la gabelle, symbolising the ancien regime, was one spark behind the French Revolution of 1789. Now Thailand, a country that has seen a few revolutions of its own, wants to introduce a modern day version.

Historical salt taxes were about power, protectionism and hard cash. By some estimates la gabelle provided a tenth of royal revenues. In China, home of the first salt taxes back in 300BC, the levies helped fund the Great Wall.

No shortage of salt, top producers by country, metric tons (’000)England’s bulging obesity problem, % of adults overweight or obese

The determining factor today is health. Salt monopolies are toast, supply is virtually inexhaustible and Big Food has happily availed itself of a cheap means of adding flavour and extending shelf life. But too much salt comes with nasty side effects: high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, strokes and coronary heart attack. It accounts for 2.5m deaths a year, says the World Health Organization.

The WHO recommends restricting intake to under 5mg a day. A chicken and mushroom pot noodle would bust a third of that; add in a couple of rashers of bacon, a bowlful of Special K and some toast and you’re soon hitting the limit. But WHO members do not stop there: they aim to reduce intake by 30 per cent by 2025. 

Taxes are just one route to that goal. Both real-life examples and academic research suggest it may not be the smartest. Hungary and Tonga, among a handful of countries that have implemented a salt tax, claim modest success. In Hungary, according to one study, only 5 per cent switched to healthier alternatives. Many Tongans simply substituted imported instant noodles with (non-taxed) local brands.

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More widely, taxes on sugar, sometimes levied on sweet, fizzy drinks, saw similarly mixed results. A study conducted by Stanford University found disappointing results from the introduction of a “soda” tax in Philadelphia. Many shoppers just bought their cans outside the city, taking a leaf out of the book of salt smugglers of yore.

In England, overall litre sales of drinks subject to a levy rose 15 per cent after it was implemented, although the total sugar content fell a third as manufacturers revised recipes. It has done little to stem the ranks of the obese and overweight — the rationale for the tax. In year one the tax raised less than half the £520m revenues. Fiscal reasoning may be more enlightened than it once was. But taxing problem ingredients is not enough to steer the world to healthier eating.

The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us what you think of taxes on unhealthy ingredients in the comments section below.



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