The beginning of September came with another hike in the price of cigarettes.
It’s a move which, on the one hand, will encourage some people to stop smoking and, on the other, will generate revenue to support the health-care costs associated with exposure to carcinogens such as tobacco.
The strategy seems to be working, since Australia now has one of the lowest rates of smoking in the world. However, we still have one of the highest rates of cancer.
In an effort to become healthier — not to mention more sensible — shouldn’t we raise taxes on the other cancer-causing substances we put in our mouths?
In 2015, Australia earned the dubious distinction of being named the meat-eating capital of the world. In the same year, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meats as carcinogenic to humans based on evidence that their consumption increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer.
This placed bacon, ham, and sausages right alongside cigarettes in the category of products that incontrovertibly harm human health. In the same report, WHO also announced that red meats were “probably carcinogenic”. While WHO’s classification of these meats as carcinogens is new, the scientific evidence in support of that conclusion is not.
For years, groups such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have been warning people about the risks associated with over-indulging in saturated fats. Unlike foods from the plant kingdom, meat, eggs, and dairy products contain cholesterol and saturated fat but no fibre at all. More than two-thirds of Australian adults are either overweight or obese, and research shows that those who avoid animal-derived foods are usually trimmer and have a lower body mass index than that of the general population.
And there’s no shortage of studies demonstrating the link between a diet high in animal products and an increased risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, kidney stones, colitis, and breast cancer.
But if we don’t tax processed — if not all — meat for health reasons, then why not consider doing so for the environment? Animal agriculture produces more than 50 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases, and the United Nations says that it’s “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”.
Last year an Oxford University research team concluded that surcharges of 40 per cent on beef and 20 per cent on milk would account for the damage their production causes to the environment. They found that pricing food according to its climate impacts would not only save one billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, but also half a million lives — and that’s just the human ones.
The biggest difference between eating a bacon cheeseburger and smoking is that one is more socially acceptable than the other. A few decades ago, smoking was also considered normal. You could light up almost anywhere, tobacco companies were able to freely advertise and you were considered rude if you did not have an ashtray in your home for guests.
We already pay extra taxes on cigarettes, alcohol, and petrol to help offset the health and environmental costs of these items, so it’s reasonable to expect people to pay more for unhealthy — and unnecessary — foods that harm both humans and animals, and contribute significantly to climate change.
Adding an excise on processed meats to match the tobacco tax would at least tip the scales towards a healthier, cleaner and kinder future for Australia.
Ashley Fruno is PETA Australia’s associate director.