In a move garnering international attention, the Danish government has reportedly approved a new excise tax on butter, cream, cheese, and other foods that contain more than 2.3 percent saturated fat per total weight. According to the Copenhagen Post, the levy took effect October 1, 2011, and “amounts to a 16 kroner duty per solid kilo of saturated fat,” raising the price of a standard butter package to 18 kroner from 15.50 kroner and 500 grams of 45-percent fat cheese to 36 kroner from 34.50 kroner.  

This so-called fat tax has already drawn criticism from some retailers and industry groups such as the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, which has estimated the annual cost per family at 1,000 kroner. But the measure has also piqued curiosity abroad, where health advocates are purportedly eager to see whether consumers will alter their diets or pay the higher prices. “It’s the first ever fat tax,” said one spokesperson for Oxford University’s Health Promotion Research Group. “It’s very interesting. We haven’t had any practical examples before. Now we will be able to see the effects for real.” See the Copenhagen Post, September 20 and October 4, 2011.  

Meanwhile, New York Times writer Mark Bittman devoted his October 4, 2011, “Opinionator” column to exploring the logic behind the tax. “By our standards, the Danes aren’t even fat: their obesity rate is about nine percent (it could be all that bike-riding), well below the European average of 15 percent and less than a third the rate of Americans,” noted Bittman. “More startling, perhaps, is that the tax was introduced by a center-right government that was simply looking for new revenues.”

Bittman also surmised that the taxation plan was successful among politicians partly because Danes “do not mind paying taxes as long as they’re put to good use” and are more open than Americans to “social engineering.” As Jesper Petersen of the Socialist People’s Party told Bittman, “It’s simply not taboo here. . . . For generations, when we believe something is bad for the population but not so bad that it should be outlawed, we tax it.”  

Petersen further explained that “seeing the strategy as health-related rather than simply income-generating” leaves the door open for similar taxes on a range of products. “These taxes will work,” he was quoted as saying, “and they’ll become the trend. Health problems from lifestyle diseases are big in every European country— and even more in the United States—and everyone will be watching us. They’ll see that this can help us control health care expenses—which will help us control the economy—and make people healthy and allow them to live longer and better lives. We’ll also pressure industry to create products that are healthier.”