Israel's Health Authorities Want Taxman to Target Unhealthy Foods

According to the Health Ministry, 37 percent of Israeli adults are overweight and another 15 percent are obese.

The health authorities are considering special taxes for unhealthy foods, following the example of Western countries that tax high-sugar and high-fat products such as soft drinks and chocolate.

The findings of a public opinion poll on the problem are to be submitted to the Health Ministry in a few weeks to help set policy, officials said on Wednesday at a conference of the Israel National Institute for Health Policy Research.

Candy - Vaknin - 15.3.12
Ofer Vaknin

In November, the socioeconomic cabinet approved a program to promote a healthy lifestyle; this included an amendment enabling tax deductions for food such as fruits and vegetables and a ban on the sale of foods high in trans fats. The plan also calls for a compulsory calorie count on ready-made food sold at supermarkets, fast-food chains and restaurants, as is the case in certain U.S. states.

According to the Health Ministry, 37 percent of Israeli adults are overweight and another 15 percent are obese. Among young people, 14 percent are overweight and another 7 percent are obese. Addressing this problem costs the economy around NIS 5.8 billion a year, health officials say.

"Recent surveys in other countries have shown partial public support for taxing unhealthy foods, especially if the money is earmarked to improve the situation rather than to go into the state coffers," says Orly Tamir of the Gertner Institute for Epidemiology and Health Policy Research.

For example, in a 2009 survey in Australia, 64 percent of the respondents supported taxing unhealthy foods; in a 2010 survey in Canada, 59 percent supported it. In the United States, 31 percent supported it in New York and 56 percent in California in 2010, and 49 percent in Boston in 2011, Tamir says.

"Media reports and op-eds say that those in favor think the tax would promote public health, while the opponents say it's regressive and would hit lower-income earners," Tamir adds. "The latter also say the state has no right to interfere with people's nutrition choices."

Austria taxes foods high in saturated fat; Australia taxes processed and fast foods, soft drinks and cookies; Britain levies a special value added tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, candy and candy bars; and France levies a special tax on candy, chocolate, margarine and vegetable fat, and raised the tax on soft drinks to 19.6 percent in January.

"We're in favor of taxing unhealthy food, but the proceeds must go toward lowering the prices of healthy foods, either by reducing VAT or by subsidies," says Adva Hyman, director-general of the Atid Israel Dietetic Association.