Ah, Marcellus, something certainly is not right in the fair state of Denmark as of last Saturday. In case you have missed the hullabaloo in Europe, a new surcharge, colourfully dubbed by the press “the fat tax”, took effect in this small Scandinavian nation on October 1, 2011. As usual, it didn’t take long to generate a massive media hysteria. After reading over 20 reports on the internet and getting thoroughly confused by factual contradictions I managed to pull out the following info:
- the tax applies to all foods containing >2.3% saturated fats
- each kg (=2.2lbs) of saturated fat will collect a surcharge of 16 kroner (=$US 2.87)
- the tax is introduced as part of obesity-fighting measures and $218 million US dollars expected to be raised will go towards preventative health
- the goal of this intervention is to reduce saturated fat intake in Denmark by 10% and butter intake by 15%
As this article eloquently puts it:
“The new tax will be levied on all products including saturated fats, from butter and milk to pizzas, oils, meats and pre-cooked foods…”
Interestingly, Copenhagen Post was seemingly concerned about other foods items:
“The biggest price increases will be seen on fatty staple foods like butter, oils and high-fat dairy products like whipping cream and crème fraiche…”
Let me for the moment pass over the ridiculousness of the sentence which lumps an ancient traditional product like butter together with pizza and pre-cooked food-like-substances-in-a-box. To be perfectly honest, I know very little about Denmark. My impressions largely consist of Vikings, dams, environmental activism, Princess Mary, beautiful images of Copenhagen and yes, butter. So after 4 days of self-imposed post-exam laziness I got my iPad out and started reading up on the Danish health, economy, agriculture and food consumption.
Warning: a few graphs coming your way.
First a few Denmark trivia facts (Source: NationMaster.com country statistics)
1. The population estimate in Denmark today is over 5.5 million with population density of 129 per km2
2. According to the latest WHO data (2008) the actual obesity rate in Denmark is 18.2% not 10% as widely reported
3. Danish Big Mac Index is the fourth highest in the world at US$4.49
4. An average Dane goes to 6.1 doctor consultations a year
5. The life expectancy at birth is 77 for men and 81 for women, lower than in Finland, Sweden and even Australia (in your face, Danes! Even with our diabetes-crippled legs and sky-rocketing obesity rates we live longer!)
6.The average tax burden is 46%
7. Denmark is widely considered one of the happiest and least corrupt countries on the planet (not sure how it tallies with both #5 or #6 but good for them)
The World Health Organization updates a regular Non-Communicable Diseases profile for each country. You can look Denmark up here. Allow me share a few more interesting facts from that profile.
I was surprised to note that 24.6% of Danes still smoke cigarettes daily, a figure much higher than 16.8% of smokers in Australia or 15.6% in the US. If I had to choose a public health intervention…
Let’s take a look at the trends of some chronic disease markers as defined by the WHO: BMI, fasting blood sugar, systolic blood pressure and total cholesterol.
Both average BMI and fasting blood sugar have been steadily climbing. That’s clear enough according to public health warriors. Butter -> extra calories -> overweight -> diabetes. This is how the conventional wisdom goes, n’est ce pas? Strangely enough, both systolic blood pressure and total cholesterol have decreased in the same period of time:
Obviously, this is just observational data and it doesn’t offer any causative relationship. Correlation does not mean causation (repeat this statement like a mantra if you work in public health). It could be that while the Danes still enjoy their high-fat dairy and meat their busy physicians prescribe them lots of antihypertensives and statins. If only we could get the Danish public to reduce their wicked butter and cheese habits, increase their intake of whole grains and vegetables and bingo! we would see those numbers plummet, life expectancy jump up, muffin tops melt away, relieved cows will be doing a happy dance.
Luckily my curiosity didn’t stop there. I wanted to see just how gluttonous the Danes apparently are. (Clarification: I don’t think they are gluttonous. As far as I’m concerned their government tells them that they are. I’m just following that logic). Statistics Denmark kindly provides all sorts of fascinating data free of charge. I pulled out some food consumption data in Denmark and ran a comparison between the years 1990, 2000 and 2009. And in case you are wondering, I totally cherry-picked my data, using only 13 out of available 55, just because I found them most illuminating but you can look up the raw data yourself here StatBank Raw Data. Click on the chart for better resolution.
Turns out that our butter-loving Danes are not eating that much butter after all: only 1.9 kg per person per year. So a desired 15% decrease in butter intake will result in…drum roll…1.6 kg per person. They consume 4 times more margarine than butter however thankfully their margarine consumption has also been declining in the last 20 years. What else can we see? Overall reduction in meat consumption since the 1990: 105.2kg to 83.6 kg. They certainly eat more beef and veal (18.8 → 24.8) but almost halved their pork consumption (64.2 to 35.8). Offal consumption is less than half of what it was even 20 years ago. In keeping up with the low fat trend, whole milk dropped 65% while white water, pardon me, skim milk jumped up over 400%. We have some increases in wheat flour and other grains, including a dieter’s staple, oats.
The other numbers that we are all dying to see are of course soft drinks (soda), industrial seed oils, sugar and the one I was always wondering about, a humble coffee shop favourite, the danish (do they even eat those?).
Overall Denmark looks like an awesome country: rich history, friendly people, gorgeous architecture. It’s a shame that their outgoing government in the desperate show of “we really care” brought a ridiculous tax which promises so much but delivers nothing other than panic at the supermarkets and more guilt about eating butter. I’d still love to come for a visit but next time I’ll bring my Lurpak from Australia.