Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Health

EAST EUROPE: Taxing Fast Foods for Health

Pavol Stracansky

BRATISLAVA, Mar 2 2010 (IPS) - Health experts have called on European governments to use a pioneering tax on fast foods to be introduced in Romania as a model for the entire continent as the battle with obesity spreads to the former communist bloc.

The tax – which nutritionists claim is one of the most far-reaching of its kind in the world – will be levied on foods like hamburgers, chips, fizzy drinks and other fast foods with high sugar and fat levels.

And the international non-profit organisation European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) has called for similar taxes to be used by other states to fight obesity.

A spokesperson for the group told IPS: “We support this move to discourage the consumption of unhealthy products. A tax on junk food products is welcome and could be used as a model for other European Union states in the years to come.”

The Romanian government has said that that the levy proposed by the Health Ministry and expected to be passed by parliament this month will stop people eating unhealthy calorie-laden foods, and help combat growing weight- related health problems among the population.

According to official figures from the ministry, half of the country’s 22 million inhabitants are overweight, and obesity rates among children between the age of three to nine have doubled in the last four years to 3.5 percent.

Adrian Streinu-Cercel, secretary of state for the health ministry, told local media that Romanians “need to be re-educated on how to eat properly” to stop obesity levels rising even further.

In many Eastern bloc states under communism, products such as pizza, hamburgers or chips were virtually unheard of and derided by governments as symbols of the decadent West.

Following the fall of communism in 1989, the popularity of fatty fast foods, especially from western chains, exploded in Romania and other Eastern European states. Those who still remembered the restrictions of the communist regimes saw fast foods as both a symbol of freedom, new links to the West and a reminder of their growing personal wealth.

But the new-found taste for fast fod has been suggested as one of the reasons for growing obesity across the region.

Prof. Vojtech Hainer, of the Czech Endocrinology Institute in Prague and a former head of the European Association for the Study of Obesity, told IPS: “Obesity rates are on the rise across Eastern Europe and this is down to typical ‘western’ characteristics such as a more sedentary life, more car use and less walking, general lack of physical activity, people playing games indoors in front of computers, watching TV, eating fast foods etc.”

The obesity problems are also not being helped by continuing historical diet traditions in rural parts of Eastern European countries, experts say. In most former Eastern bloc countries cuisine was designed to be filling rather than nutritious with fatty pork and potato dishes common. Older people in the region continue to stick to those diets even today.

Surveys and studies have shown that some Eastern European states have some of the highest obesity rates in Europe.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of 30 wealthy nations, half or more of the adult population in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia is overweight or obese.

And a study presented last year led by researchers from Manchester University working with other scientists in Europe showed that the proportion of new cancer cases caused by overweight or obesity was highest in women in Eastern European countries like the Czech Republic, Latvia, Slovenia and Bulgaria.

Dr Timothy Armstrong, coordinator at the department for Health Promotion at the World Health Organisation (WHO), told IPS that Eastern Europe was as affected by obesity as any other region on the world.

“Obesity is a global issue. It is not only an issue in ‘Western’ or high income countries. Many low-middle income countries now also have an increasing health burden due to the rapidly increasing proportion of overweight and obese people and subsequent health problems,” he said.

Health experts also warn that poorer Eastern European states will struggle to cope financially with the health care burden of obesity, and do not have the funds available in western states to launch education and other preventive schemes to deal with diet-related health problems.

The WHO has estimated that in former communist bloc countries up to five percent of the entire health budget is spent treating obesity and weight- related health problems.

But while the tax has been hailed by supporters as a unique way to help tackle the problem of weight-related health issues, it has only been cautiously welcomed by many health experts, including the WHO.

They argue that such taxes will only be effective if accompanied by clear information to encourage people to follow a healthier diet and lifestyle.

Dr Cristian Panaite, a nutritionist at the KiloStop Nutrition Clinic in Bucharest, told IPS: “This kind of tax can be good and help people lose weight, but it has to be done properly. People need to be told exactly what is healthy to eat and foods need to be taxed in a way so as to encourage them to eat healthy foods, such as vegetables. Simply taxing a few types of fast food and not encouraging people to eat healthy foods will not work.

“The tax needs to come with clear advice on what is healthy for people and what is not.”

Dr Armstrong added: “Supportive policies which provide the consumer with an environment in which the ‘healthy choice is the easy choice’ and in which the healthy options are accessible and affordable are more likely to have a greater effect when combined with a campaign.”

Critics of the Romanian tax have also pointed to the fact that, in its current form, pizzas and kebabs will be exempt from the levy.

Food producers have also claimed that Romanians eat unhealthily because they are poor and that pushing up the cost of foods will only make the situation worse.

Romania is one of Europe’s poorest countries with an average monthly wage of just over 350 euros, and Romanians spend almost half of their income on food. It has been estimated that the new tax could push prices up by as much as 20 percent.

The WHO’s Armstrong said: “It is possible that taxes may unintentionally impact more greatly on vulnerable populations, and evaluation of such a tax should take this into account.”

Others in the food industry have meanwhile warned of the health risks from a potentially dangerous black market in illegal meat they say will be established once the tax is implemented.

Mihai Visan, who heads the Romalimenta food producer group, told local media: “Meat will be taken from unlicensed slaughterhouses, and carcasses will be sold to small producers.”

But some experts are convinced that the pros of the tax far outweigh any possible cons.

“It is a very good move to bring in a tax like this. We need to see these kind of taxes to help people eat more healthily,” Prof. Hainer told IPS.

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