Public Health Nutrition

Research Article

Taxing food: implications for public health nutrition

Martin Carahera1 c1 and Gill Cowburna2

a1 Department of Health Management and Food Policy, The Centre for Food Policy, Institute of Health Sciences, City University, Goswell Place, Northampton Square, London EC1 0HB, UK

a2 BHF Health Promotion Research Group, Department of Public Health, University of Oxford, Old Road Campus, Headington, Oxford OX3 7LF, UK


Aim To set out a policy analysis of food taxes as a way of influencing food consumption and behaviour.

Design The study draws on examples of food taxes from the developed world imposed at national and local levels. Studies were identified from a systemised search in six databases with criteria designed to identity articles of policy relevance.

Results The dominant approach identified from the literature was the imposition of food taxes on food to raise general revenue, such as Value Added Tax in the European Union. Food taxes can be applied in various ways, ranging from attempts to directly influence behaviour to those which collect taxes for identified campaigns on healthy eating through to those applied within closed settings such as schools. There is a case for combining taxes of unhealthy foods with subsidies of healthy foods. The evidence from the literature concerning the use and impact of food taxes on food behaviour is not clear and those cases identified are mainly retrospective descriptions of the process. Many food taxes have been withdrawn after short periods of time due to industry lobbying.

Conclusions for policy Small taxes with the clear purpose of promoting the health of key groups, e.g. children, are more likely to receive public support. The focus of many tax initiatives is unclear; although they are generally aimed at consumers, another focus could be food manufacturers, using taxes and subsidies to encourage the production of healthier foods, which could have an effect at a population level. Further consideration needs to be given to this aspect of food taxes. Taxing food (and subsidies) can influence food behaviour within closed systems such as schools and the workplace.

(Received October 12 2004)

(Accepted May 10 2005)


c1 *Corresponding author: Email