Comment: Gluttons for punishment deserve a sin tax on meat

By Ingrid E Newkirk

Whether we're talking about the 'squeezed middle', the 'cost-of-living crisis' or cutting the 'biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history', it's fair to say that many Brits will be feeling pretty taxed already by the time the chancellor stands up to deliver his budget speech on Wednesday. Regardless, I would like to propose a new set of taxes that will benefit everyone: an excise tax on meat, eggs and dairy products that will help put our economy – and taxpayers suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other health problems – on the road to recovery.

Consumers already pay 'sin' taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and gasoline to help offset their health and environmental costs. Yet although eating flesh and animal secretions is another unhealthy habit as well as a leading cause of climate change, it has so far escaped being taxed. Unfair! And unhelpful.

Earlier this month, we saw the release of yet another study showing the link between eating animal products and the harm caused to human health. Middle-aged people who eat protein-heavy diets are four times as likely to die of cancer as those who eat only a little protein, according to the study, which was published in the journal Cell Metabolism. The researchers said that eating as much protein as the average meat- and dairy-eater increases the risk of developing cancer almost as much as smoking 20 cigarettes a day.

The latest findings created a stir, but it's not as if we hadn't heard them before. Groups such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have been warning people about these risks for years. We've long since known that meat, eggs and dairy products – unlike vegetables, nuts, pulses, grains and fruits – contain cholesterol and saturated fat but no fibre at all. That makes them the main culprits in the obesity epidemic which contributes to the UK's top killers: heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and cancer. In the last few months alone, we've seen studies demonstrating the link between diets high in animal products and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, kidney stones, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, breast cancer and other forms of cancer. It seems we are not just gluttons but also gluttons for punishment.

Yet many people remain ignorant of these facts, much to their own detriment and, regrettably, that of their children. Some of this ignorance can be put down to mixed messaging in that the government still heavily subsidises the meat and dairy industries. The government could save the lives of a lot more people, not to mention countless animals, if it treated the meat and dairy industries the same way that it treats the other 'sin' industries. If it were to impose taxes on meat and dairy products in the same way that it has done for cigarettes, a lot more people would realise that tobacco isn't the only cancer-causing substance that they should keep out of their mouths.

A tax on meat is not all that new an idea, either. Last year scientists writing in the journal Nature Climate Change suggested cutting methane emissions by pushing up the price of meat through a tax or emissions trading scheme. According to the United Nations, the meat industry is "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global", and the UN has concluded that a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to saving the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst effects of climate change. The cruelty to animals it would prevent goes without saying.

A meat tax would bring more fairness to the tax system, and the revenue gained could go towards funding educational programmes about the health and environmental benefits of abstaining from meat, eggs and dairy products. I say, let's put it on the table.

Ingrid E Newkirk is founder and managing director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals UK (PETA UK), and the author of the book, The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights.

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