Tag Archives: Tax

“Vested interests” cause major threat to human existence, researchers say

The global triangle of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change represents ‘The Global Syndemic’ — the greatest threat to human and planetary health, researchers say. The underlying causes of this syndemic are commercial vested interests, lack of political leadership, and insufficient societal demand for change.

Image in public domain.

A Global Syndemic

“Syndemic” is not a word you hear very often — and you most definitely don’t want to hear. It represents an aggregation of two or more epidemics or diseases which exacerbate the total damage. The ‘Global Syndemic’ refers to the devastating combination of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change — which a new report published in the Lancet identifies as the single largest threat to mankind and Earth.

Excess body weight is estimated to affect 2 billion people worldwide, causing 4 million deaths every year. At the same time, stunting and wasting affect 155 million and 52 million children worldwide, respectively; 2 billion people suffer from a micronutrient deficiency, and 815 million people are chronically undernourished. Malnutrition is the single biggest cause of ill-health globally. Climate change is already affecting the lives of most people on Earth, with devastating consequences. Even from a purely economic standpoint, these issues account for an excess of 20% of the global GDP — but from a humanitarian perspective, it’s an unmitigated disaster.

The first thing we must change, the Lancet Commission on Obesity argues, is our perspective. These three issues are generally regarded as separate — but they share a common backbone: a global policy focusing on economic growth, ignoring negative health effects, environmental damage, and social inequality.

“Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories. In reality, they are both driven by the same unhealthy, inequitable food systems, underpinned by the same political economy that is single-focused on economic growth, and ignores the negative health and equity outcomes. Climate change has the same story of profits and power ignoring the environmental damage caused by current food systems, transportation, urban design and land use. Joining the three pandemics together as The Global Syndemic allows us to consider common drivers and shared solutions, with the aim of breaking decades of policy inertia,” says Commission co-chair, Professor Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland.

The effects of these issues are also intertwined. For instance, climate change will disproportionately affect the underdeveloped parts of the world, bringing even more food insecurity and extreme weather events. Fetal and infant malnutrition has also been shown to increase the risk of adult obesity, and climate change also increases the price of numerous food commodities, especially fruits and vegetables, which can fight global obesity. Overall, things revolve in a connected triangle, making each other worse, just like several diseases can make each other worse by collapsing the immune system.

The solutions, therefore, must also act on all these issues in conjunction.

“We must recognise these connections and implement double-duty actions that address both obesity and undernutrition and triple-duty actions that influence multiple parts of the syndemic simultaneously,” says Commissioner Professor Corinna Hawkes, City University London (UK).

It sounds weird to say that measures against obesity would also fight climate change (and vice versa), but here’s a very simple example: what if we were to tax red meat? Red meat requires a disproportionate amount of resources, produces a huge amount of greenhouse gases, and at the same time, it is a major contributor to the global obesity crisis. The tax money could be used to alleviate world hunger or promote healthier and more sustainable alternatives. Supporting active transportation in the form of walking, cycling, or using public transportation is another excellent example: this could reduce some of the greenhouse gases coming from transportation, while at the same time making people more healthier and alleviating infrastructure strain as a bonus.

So why aren’t we doing more of this?

Vested interests

The reason, the report explains, is shockingly straightforward: powerful vested interests oppose it. It’s very rare to see a scientific report being so trenchant about something so delicate, and that’s exactly what makes it so important to heed its warning.

Image in public domain.

Economic power has been increasingly concentrated into fewer, larger companies. These companies are investing heavily in lobbying to promote their own policies and reject any health-based policy that would attack their profits.

It’s well known that major fossil fuel companies have denied climate change for decades, even though they knew it was happening as a direct result of their activities. At the same time, subsidies from the US government keep the price of oil artificially low — subsidies which would be better diverted towards more sustainable forms of energy. Attempts to include sustainability in national dietary guidelines in the USA and Australia failed as a result of corporate lobbying from the food industry, which pushed to remove sustainability from the terms of reference. Lobby from the sugary drinks industry has also been very successful against local initiatives to reduce soda consumption, and it research funded by this industry is five times less likely to find an association between sugary drinks and obesity compared to other studies.

All in all, it seems that this financial and market power of the world’s major companies translates into political power, preventing regulation that would be beneficial for people.

“With market power comes political power, and even willing governments struggle to get policies implemented against industry pressure. New governance dynamics are needed to break the policy inertia preventing action. Governments need to regain the power to act in the interests of people and the planet and global treaties help to achieve this. Vested commercial interests need to be excluded from the policy table, and civil society needs to have a stronger voice in policy-making. Without disruptive change like these, we will continue on with the status quo which is driving The Global Syndemic,” says Commissioner Tim Lobstein, World Obesity Federation

What should be done

Researchers are calling for a new worldwide social movement — which again, is highly unusual for a scientific report. Lobstein and colleagues say we need to radically rethink the relationship between the important players: policymakers, business, governance, and civil society. Since the business is the main driver of this situation and the governance and policymaking side also seem content with this status quo, it seems like the only potential source of change is the civil society. Effectively, all possible strategies that would fight this syndemic require larger support from all of us.

Not only do we need to make better individual decisions when it comes to our own lifestyles, but we need to push policymakers in the right direction and encourage them to make more sustainable decisions. Supporting businesses which take steps in the right direction is also important, as is not supporting the ones that don’t.

This type of social mobilization can work. We’ve seen the intention of the US administration to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which itself is seen by many as not ambitious enough — so political deals can be surprisingly fragile. But even in this situation, 2,700 leaders from US cities, states, and businesses representing 159 million people and US$ 6.2 trillion in GDP have developed an alliance and continued to mitigate the effects of climate change. In Mexico and the UK, mobilization against sugary drinks has led to the implementation of a tax, despite strong resistance from the industry.

The businesses don’t need to be on the losing side of it, either. Of course, things like sugar, which have a clear negative effect (called a negative externality), should be taxed — but the only unfair thing is that this hasn’t happened so far. Similarly, the world’s leading economists are advocating for a carbon tax. But this all opens up new avenues for sustainable business models, the likes of which can turn a profit while not doing environmental and health damage. Furthermore, the incentive is to make the switch as early as possible but again, the drive needs to also come from the social level — from each and every one of us.

“The past few years have seen renewed activism at the local level, whether in cities, communities, or in particular issues. As with other social movements, such as campaigns to introduce sugary drink taxes, efforts to address the Global Syndemic are more likely to begin at the community, city, or state level, and subsequently build to a national or global level. Support for civil society is crucial to break the policy deadlock and the systems driving the Global Syndemic,” concludes Professor Dietz.

England’s meager 5p plastic bag tax did wonders — and it’s about to increase to 10p

Not only is the tax set to double, according to prime minister Theresa May, but it will affect everyone — not just big retailers.

In 2014, over 7.6 billion single-use plastic bags were given out to customers by major supermarkets in England. That’s around 140 bags per person, the equivalent of about 61,000 tonnes in total — and that’s just major supermarkets. The number grew year after year, and ironically, this happened despite research showing that the average English household has 40 plastic bags around the home.

In 2015, the government stepped in and implemented a meager plastic bag tax: 5p, the equivalent of $0.06. Since then, plastic bag usage has dropped by more than 80%, and the average number of bags used per year dropped from 140 in 2014 to 24 bags in 2016, and 19 bags in 2018. British shores are seeing much less plastic, and the overall levels of plastic pollution have gone down dramatically. Similar taxes are in places in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and the government estimates that by 2025, the benefits will amount to:

  • an expected overall benefit of over £780 million to the UK economy;
  • up to £730 million raised for good causes;
  • £60 million savings in litter clean-up costs;
  • carbon savings of £13 million.

But the UK government is considering taking things even further: if a 5p tax can do so much, imagine what a 10p tax can do. Okay, realistically speaking, there’s not much difference between 5p and 10p — the major difference is between 0 and something — but the measure will also bring another important change: it will affect everyone, not just major sellers.

As things currently stand, only English retailers who employ more than 250 employees are required to implement the tax. Under the new regulation, all sellers, no matter how small, will be required to charge the tax. This is already the case in Wales and Scotland.

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”What happens to the money” footer=””]In the strict economic sense, the charge is not a tax, so the money does not go to the government. Retailers are given the choice on what to do with the money, and while they can use it for their own projects, they are largely expected to give it to good causes — which they are doing.

Between April 2016 and 2017, 4.3p was donated to good causes for every 5p bag sold (86%).

[/panel]

Reactions to this idea have generally been positive, though environmental campaign group A Plastic Planet said it was the wrong approach. This only adds pressure on customers, instead of the producers. Founder Sian Sutherland told the BBC:

“This levy increase unfairly targets consumers while major brands continue to force plastic upon them. The government needs to shift its focus on to them if it is to become a world leader in tackling the plastic problem.”

However, this approach has proven very effective in neighboring Ireland, which is now a leader in tackling plastic pollution. Whether the measure will be implemented in the first place in England, and whether it will be successful still remains to be seen. But for now, things look promising.

Dollar bills.

Increasing the price of US cigarettes by just one dollar per pack would lead to one million people kicking the habit

A one dollar per pack increase could make smokers 20% more likely to quit, a new paper reports.

Dollar bills.

Image credits Thomas Breher.

In the words famously uttered on South Park, smoking is bad, ‘mmmkay? Smoking is also extremely addictive and is the leading cause of preventable death across the world. Efforts are being made to dissuade people from picking up the habit and helping old-timers shed it, but between its addictiveness and the efforts of big tobacco to change the focus from health issues to consumers’ right to chose (to inhale death) for themselves, it’s been quite an uphill battle.

A new paper, however, comes to show that even discrete price changes can nudge users into changing their habits. The study used 10 years’ worth of neighborhood-level price data to see how it affected smoking habits, with particular attention given to long-time smokers. The results are quite surprising: even a modest, one dollar per pack increase in price can make smokers 20% more likely to quit, while old smokers were 35% more likely to quit.

More life for your buck

“Older adult smokers have been smoking for a long time and tend to have lower rates of smoking cessation compared to younger populations, suggesting deeply entrenched behavior that is difficult to change,” said Stephanie Mayne, PhD, a fellow at Northwestern and the lead author of the study.

“Our finding that increases in cigarette prices were associated with quitting smoking in the older population suggests that cigarette taxes may be a particularly effective lever for behavior change.”

The relationship between cigarette price and smoking habits on a local level is an understudied field that could hold a lot of solutions for the issue at hand, says Amy Auchincloss, PhD, associate professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health and senior author of the paper. Most results we have up to now have primarily “come from population surveillance,” she adds, which is why the team decided to zoom in on the neighborhood level.

The team followed a cohort of 632 individuals (a cohort is a group of people sharing one or more characteristics) ranging in age from 44 to 84 from six different locations including the Bronx, Chicago, and Winston-Salem. The data used in the study was recorded as a part of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Artherosclerosis (MESA) between 2002 and 2012.

After crunching up the data, the team found that smokers were 20% more likely to quit for every one dollar increase in pack price. The same increase linked to a 3% “reduction in risk of current smoking” and a 19% reduction in the average number of cigarettes smoked each day. When looking only at heavy smokers (those smoking more than half a pack a day) the same increase in price linked to 7% reduction in risk of heavy smoking, and a 35% reduction in the average number of cigarettes they smoked per day. The data focused on people older than 44, but Mayne thinks this effect may be “similar or possibly stronger in a younger population.”

“Since heavy smokers smoke more cigarettes per day initially, they may feel the impact of a price increase to a greater degree and be more likely to cut back on the number of cigarettes they smoke on a daily basis,” Mayne said.

“Some research suggests younger adults may be more price-sensitive than older adults,” she added.

Eww, price increases

The paper further “found no association between smoking bans and outcomes,” and no evidence that this price effect was “modified by the presence of [smoking] bans,” suggesting that bans in bars and restaurants don’t actually deter people from smoking. The team’s hypotheses is that the economic pressure of added cost per cigarette will provide a strong incentive for people to quit, whereas placing limits on smoking in public places doesn’t cut it — you can simply move from the non-smoking area, but you can’t pay less than the pack is priced at the teller. Not legally, anyway.

“A ban may be circumvented by going outside or staying home, whereas avoiding a price increase might take more effort,” explains Mark Stehr, PhD, associate professor in Drexel’s School of Economics and co-author of the study.

All in all, the results strongly point towards taxation as the better strategy for discouraging smoking across all ages than location bans. This monetary nudging parallels previous work where modest taxation was used to deter people from eating junk food and sugary beverages. It doesn’t have to be a price increase that actually prohibits people from buying the item, either, so their freedom of choice isn’t limited. Even a slight increase in price works because people won’t be as willing to pay $6.55 for an item that’s been $6.00 or $5.55 their whole life. Why pay more for the same product, right?

“Given our findings, if an additional one dollar was added to the U.S. tobacco tax, it could amount to upwards of one million fewer smokers,” Auchincloss concluded.

“Short of federal taxes, raising state and local taxes and creating minimum price thresholds for tobacco should be essential components of a comprehensive tobacco control strategy — particularly in places with high tobacco prevalence.”

The paper “Longitudinal Associations of Local Cigarette Prices and Smoking Bans with Smoking Behavior in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA)” has been published in the journal Epidemiology.

London to introduce £10 ($12) vehicle tax for polluting cars

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced the implementation of a new tax which will affect the most polluting vehicles.

Cars in London. Image credits: David Holt / Flickr

The announcement comes after a disastrous couple of months for London in terms of air quality. London has reached its yearly NO2 pollution limit in just 8 days, air pollution alerts were issued several times, and a judge has officially ordered the city to solve its problem.

While some measures were taken, it was simply not enough to alleviate the worsening problem. Such a tax, Khan mentions, was a necessity.

“It’s staggering that we live in a city where the air is so toxic that many of our children are growing up with lung problems. If we don’t make drastic changes now we won’t be protecting the health of our families in the future.

“That is why today, on the 14th anniversary of the start of the congestion charge, I’ve confirmed we are pressing ahead with the toughest emission standard of any major city, coming to our streets from 23 October.”

The new tax only applies to the central parts of London, and it will address only the oldest, most polluting vehicles, around 10,000 of them. Particularly, it applies to motorists with cars without the Euro-4 standards — something which has already been in place for more than 10 years. When you add it up to the congestion tax, a pre-Euro 4 car owner will pay £21.50 a day to drive his car in central London.

The move has been generally praised. Dr Peter Steer, from the Great Ormond Street hospital for children where a consultation on the tax was held, said:

“The mayor’s drive to clean up the capital’s air is fantastic news for our patients and staff. Children living in highly polluted areas are four times more likely to have reduced lung function in adulthood, yet improving air quality has been shown to halt and reverse this effect.”

Many children in London go to school in areas with pollution levels way above what’s considered legal and healthy, and Khan has made it one of his priorities to clear the British capital’s polluted air. However, this is just a small step towards that goal. Ultimately, his plan is to extend the so-called ultra-low emission zone beyond central London to the North and South Circular roads. The big accomplishment would be implementing a diesel scrappage scheme, but that’s out of the mayor’s hands and in the hands of the Parliament.

The need for action is acute. According to The Guardian, air pollution is believed to cause almost 40,000 premature deaths every year in the UK and was in April labelled a “public health emergency” by a cross-party committee of MPs. The UK’s government has been sued several times and has even lost a couple of legal cases due to its lack of action. Unfortunately, not everyone in the UK is as motivated as mister Khan.

Number of plastic bags found on UK shores almost halved after just 5p tax

I always tell my friends that the difference between almost free and free is huge. It sounds a bit strange, but while $7.95 is not that different from $8, $0 is vastly different from $0.05.

Plastic beach litter, Hengistbury Head. Image credits: Rob Noble

In 2015, we wrote about Scotland‘s meager 5p tax for plastic bags – that’s about $0.06. However, that tiny tax worked wonders. In just one year, the number of plastic bags handed out in stores was slashed by 80% – that’s 650 million fewer bags in Scotland alone! This translates into a net saving of more than 4,000 tonnes of plastic and a reduction of 2,500 tonnes of CO2 annually. England followed suit, adding the same tax one year later for retailers with over 250 full-time employees. Now the entire United Kingdom (Wales and Northern Ireland included) has the 5p tax for plastic bags.

Back then, we were expecting the measure to do wonders, and it did. The Marine Conservation Society reported the lowest number of plastic bags found on UK shores in the past 10 years. According to their report, in 2015, there were on average 11 plastic bags per 100 metres of coastline cleaned in 2015. In 2016, there were just 7, an almost 40% reduction. Of course, it takes some time before the full effects of plastic reduction can be seen in nature.

The charity’s beach watch manager, Lauren Eyles, said:

“In the last decade, our Great British Beach Clean volunteers have found an average of 10 single use carrier bags for every 100 metres of coastline cleaned. It vindicates the charge, which we predicted would be good news for the marine environment. Thanks to our thousands of fantastic volunteers who collect beach litter data, we can now see the impact these charges have had.”

The numbers are expected to drop even more. In Wales, where the tax has been implemented for five years, there were just under four bags for every 100 metres cleaned. Overall, total levels of rubbish dropped by 4% on UK beaches, mostly due to the 5p tax. According to the BBC, other plastic objects found on beaches include:

  • Plastic caps and lids (204 found per 100m). Seabirds can mistake floating plastic for food.
  • Cotton buds (23 per 100m). These plastic sticks end up in the sewage instead of being recycled.
  • Wet wipes (14 per 100m). They shouldn’t be thrown in the sink or in the toilet.

Aside from the direct pollution, turtles and other wildlife often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish or other food and consume them. Often times, these items block their digestive systems, basically causing starvation. While we certainly benefit from plastic (and in some cases, depend on it) we’re drastically overusing it. Our world is full of single-use plastic, and if we want to create a sustainable future, cutting plastic will certainly be a key part of that.

Berkley’s penny-per-ounce soda tax paid off, a new study reports

An analysis of Berkeley’s “soda tax,” an U.S. first, finds some encouraging results about its power to influence people’s dietary habits.

The fizziest of killers.
Image credits Eddie Welker / Flickr.

Back in 2014, the city of Berkeley, California, passed a bill to issue a one penny-per-ounce tax on all sugar-sweetened beverages sold in the city. Five months after its implementation, lower-income residents had reduced their consumption if these items by 21% compared to pre-tax levels. The drop in consumption coincided with a period when the people of Oakland and San Francisco increased the amount of sodas and other sugared drinks that they consumed by 4%. Locals also increased their water consumption by 63% over the study period while their neighbors only drank 19% more water, the study found.

Soda taxes have worked in Mexico, they’ve been implemented in the UK, and now their efficacy has been confirmed once more. The Berkeley study proved that taxes can be used to steer people away from excessively sugary drinks, just as with tobacco or alcohol, said a public health researcher at UC Berkeley and senior author of the study Dr. Kristine Madsen.

“While Berkeley is just one small city, this is an important first step in identifying tools that can move the needle on population health,” Madsen said in a statement.

Some two dozen states have considered adding excise taxes on sugary beverages in the past, including Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., reported the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. But Berkeley was the first to actually implement Measure D in 2014 after a campaign framed as “Berkeley vs. Big Soda.

An excise tax won’t show up at the register, and instead gets mixed into the full price of the item. This means higher prices for the consumer, and three months after Measure D went into effect 47% of the penny-per-ounce tax was taken out of customers’ pockets. For sodas in particular, 69% of the tax was incorporated into the price.

Madsen and her team wanted to know how the tax impacted buying habits so they sent interviewers to busy intersections in census tracts with large numbers of low-income and non-white residents. The focus was placed on these groups as they are “more likely to consume [sugar-sweetened beverages] and suffer related health consequences,” such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the researchers wrote. The interviewers asked locals in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco how often they consumed five categories of drinks:: full-calorie soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit drinks and sweetened tea or coffee concoctions.

The first set of interviews was taken at least eight months prior to the tax coming into effect, to establish the initial conditions. The second was taken five months after implementation. Nearly 3,000 people answered the questions in either English or Spanish.

After controlling for age, gender, race, ethnicity and education level, the researchers found that Berkeley locals had strikingly different drinking habits from those in Oakland or San Francisco. They drank 26% less soda after the tax went into effect, while their neighbors drank 10% more. In the case of sports drinks, Berkeley residents cut back by 36%, while Oakland and San Francisco drank 21% more. Both of these differences are large enough to be statistically significant, the authors note. These trends held for other categories, too. Arizona Iced Tea, bottled Frappuccinos and other sweetened coffee products or teas were 13% less consumed in Berkeley but 22% more consumed in Oakland and San Francisco.

Energy drink consumption dropped all in all cities, but was more pronounced in Berkeley with 29% than in the other cities, at 14%. Fruit drink consumption was lowered by 13% in Berkeley and 12% in the other cities.

More than  20% of Berkeley residents (124 in total) reported that the tax directly affected their drinking habits. Out of these, 82% said they consumed sugary drinks less frequently, and 40% said they had reduced their portion sizes. About 5% of people who said they had purchased sugary drinks in Berkeley before the tax went into effect (18 respondents) reported they now bought these drinks in other cities, and 6 claimed that the tax caused the switch.

The team didn’t calculate what this reduction means in terms of calories, so the policy’s effect on obesity remains unknown. They also noted that the health messages discussed during the election campaign may have had an effect on the shift from sugary drinks to water.

At the same time, because this was tested in a single city, it remains unclear how the results would carry over to a wider scale of several cities or even whole states. But if a nationwide tax were to cut sugary drink consumption by a similar amount, Americans as a whole could gain about 101,000 healthy years over a decade, according to another study cited by the researchers.

“Widespread adoption of [sugar-sweetened beverage] excise taxes could have considerable fiscal and public health benefits,” the authors conclude.

The full paper, titled “Impact of the Berkeley Excise Tax on Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption” has been published online in the American Journal of Public Health.