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Meat taxes would save lives, cut health care costs, study says

Tetra Images via Getty Images SOURCE: Tetra Images via Getty Images
Meat taxes would save lives, cut health care costs, study says

It would drive up the price of your barbecue, but a global meat tax could save 220,000 lives and cut health care bills by $41 billion each year, according to a new study.

The numbers are based on evidence that links meat consumption to increased risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.


Three years ago, the World Health Organization declared red meat — such as beef, lamb and pork — to be carcinogenic when eaten in processed forms, including sausages, bacon and beef jerky.

Health officials also have declared that unprocessed red meat such as steak and burgers are "probably" carcinogenic. Other carcinogens such as cigarettes and alcohol are regulated in order to reduce cases of chronic disease.

A team of researchers led by Dr. Marco Springmann, from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at Oxford University, estimated the tax rate that would be necessary to offset health care costs related to red meat consumption.

"The least intrusive form of regulation is a tax to raise prices and reduce consumption," Springmann told CNN.

Researchers concluded that the United Kingdom government should introduce a 79 percent tax on processed meat such as bacon, and 14 percent tax on unprocessed meat such as steak.

In the United States, the numbers would be higher with a 163 percent tax on processed meats and a 34 percent tax on unprocessed meats.

"The tax is higher in the U.S. due to an inefficient health system that wastes a lot of money," Springmann said.

Officials with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals support a meat tax.

"Cigarettes, alcohol and gasoline are already federally taxed to help pay for their hidden health or environmental costs," the organization's website says. "Although meat consumption is a health hazard and meat production is a leading source of environmental degradation, the meat industry has gotten off easy."

The team also calculated the projected impact of a meat tax on death rates due to chronic disease.

With reduced consumption of red meat, the study claims there would be 220,000 fewer deaths from chronic disease per year around the world. Of that total, 6,000 deaths would be avoided in the U.K. and 53,000 in the U.S.

Global savings on health care would reach $41 billion, according to the report, which was published in the journal PLOS One, published by the Public Library of Science. The U.K. would save $1 billion per year, while the U.S. would reduce spending by $20 billion.

The benefits of reducing red meat consumption also go beyond reducing rates of disease and health care costs.

"Consuming red and processed meat not only affects your health but also the economy at large," Springmann said, citing decreased productivity due to illness and care for family members who suffer from chronic disease.

Regular consumption of processed meat has also been linked to a 9 percent higher risk of breast cancer, according to an analysis of various scientific studies published in October.

In fact, eating any ultra-processed food can increase the risk of cancer, obesity and diabetes, according to other research. That includes anything made with artificial flavors, additives and emulsifiers, or high levels of sugar and salt.

Health nutritionist and dietitian Carrie Ruxton said meat consumption already had seen a significant decline in the U.K., adding that red meat provides valuable nutrients to diets.

"A tax on red meat would be a retrograde step, both for overall diet quality in women and girls and for health inequalities," she said in a statement to CNBC.

In the United States, the average person consumed more than 200 pounds of meat in 2017, The Atlantic reported. That number is more than twice the amount people consumed in 1961.

Governments around the world have already shown a willingness to tax products that have been linked with health problems, including cigarettes, alcohol and sugar.

In Philadelphia, a soda tax was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this summer. The tax charges 1.5 cents per ounce.

Voters in Oregon on Tuesday defeated a measure that would have banned local and state governing bodies from enacting a soda tax. In Washington state, voters approved an initiative that prohibits local governing bodies from adding taxes on groceries. Washington's ban does not affect Seattle's soda tax.