A proposal by a Swiss member of parliament to introduce a tax on high-fat foods has attracted little enthusiasm.
Both health experts and the food industry doubt whether a tax would solve the problem of obesity.
Heiner Studer, a Protestant Party parliamentarian, plans to introduce his proposal during the spring parliamentary session, which began on March 1.
“The main idea is to force the food industry to change the kind of foods it produces,” Studer told swissinfo.
“And in the meantime the money raised could be used for all the health problems caused by obesity.“
Studer’s plan is to impose a tax on high-fat, high-sugar content fast foods, although the precise list of products and the rate of the tax still have to be worked out.
Only last week, a report by the Federal Institute of Technology warned that Swiss children were increasingly overweight.
But although it is accepted that obesity is a growing problem in Switzerland, health officials are not convinced that a tax on high-fat foods would really work.
“It’s something that would have to be examined very carefully,” said Urs Klemm, head of food safety and nutrition at the Swiss Federal Health Office.
“We would have to find out if a tax would really regulate consumption, what kind of products would be taxed, and above all, if the population would really accept it.
“I think if there was a lot of opposition, the tax might actually jeopardise the goal of reducing obesity,” Klemm told swissinfo.
But health experts do agree with Studer that something has to be done about obesity.
Last week’s report revealed that the number of overweight children in Switzerland has tripled over the last 20 years, while the number classed as clinically-obese has increased six-fold.
“We are seeing more and more kids, as well as parents, who are overweight,” said Daniele Fahrni, a diet and nutrition adviser at Bern’s Insel Hospital.
“But I’m sceptical about a tax,” she told swissinfo. “To put people off buying high fat foods, you would have to increase prices on certain things a great deal, and that would be very unpopular.”
Instead, Fahrni supports the recommendations of the Zurich study, which suggest nutrition lessons in schools, and a renewed commitment to physical education.
“Schools have cut back on sports lessons in the last few years,” she said. “We need to bring them back. Kids should have three sports lessons a week.”
Unsurprisingly, the food industry does not support a fat tax either. Nestlé, one of the world’s largest food and drink producers, believes it would be not only unfair, but also unworkable.
“We already have enough taxes in this country,” said Hans Jurg Renk, a spokesman for Nestlé. “A new one would hit the poorer population, and that would be unjust.”
“And there are no studies which show that a tax would work,” he told swissinfo.
Nestlé is against not just a fat tax, but also health warnings on high-fat foods. Renk believes food should not be regarded in such a negative way.
“We do take the problem of obesity very seriously, but food is not poison.
“Or you could echo [the Swiss physician] Paracelsus and say everything is poison depending on the dose,” he continued. “And basically we think obesity is really a problem of dosage.”
Nevertheless health experts do agree that action must be taken to tackle the obesity problem, and the food industry should play a part.
“For one thing food producers could start making things that are less sweet,” said Fahrni.
“If you drink artificially-sweetened lemonade for example, you may be consuming fewer calories, but you’re still getting yourself used to a very sweet taste.”
“The food industry could make real lemonade [which tastes less sweet] and give the public a chance to enjoy that taste.”
Urs Klemm at the Federal Office Health is glad that at least the issue of obesity is attracting attention, even if a tax may not be the best weapon against it.
“Our research shows that 42 per cent of Swiss men and 28 per cent of women are overweight,” he said.
“It’s a big problem, and it’s time we had a political debate about it.”
Heiner Studer is realistic about the chances of his fat tax making it through parliament.
“Obviously it’s not possible to get this into law in a few months,” he said. “It will take time, but I want the government to at least look at this idea.”
“And it really depends what foods we tax,” he continued. “If we were to propose a tax on chocolate, in Switzerland it would have no chance.”
swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes
The Swiss Federal Health Office says 42% of Swiss men and 28% of Swiss women are overweight.
There are three times as many overweight Swiss children today as there were 20 years ago.
The World Health Organization has warned that obesity is becoming a major health problem all over the world.
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