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Tasty tradeoffs

In last week’s Insights column, I went through the relative risks of eating red meat. Yes, there’s an increased cancer risk associated with red and especially processed meats, but the absolute increase in risk is not that high: about a percentage point. And meat is tasty. My bottom line:

For better or worse, and generally for better, New Zealand has a public health system that ensures that everyone has access to taxpayer-funded basic health care. The deal would be rather different if having a public health system justified the government’s regulating and taxing away our choices to help to keep the costs down. Public health advocates do not have a ruler on which they can measure how much I enjoy bacon, my daily drink, and the occasional soda. How to balance living longer and living tastier is a choice best left to each of us.

Christina Cleghorn, Nick Wilson, and Tony Blakely predictably take the opposite view. Here they are at SciBlogs:

There is now strong scientific evidence of an increased risk of colorectal cancer with processed meat consumption, limited evidence of red meats being associated with colorectal cancer and some evidence of an association between red and processed meat and CVD and type 2 diabetes. Collectively all this matters since these diseases impose substantial health loss and also costs on publicly-funded health systems.

There are also other issues involved with meat production – including greenhouse gas emissions from ruminant agriculture and ethical/animal welfare concerns. Perhaps it is time for governments to more fully explore the options around reducing meat consumption at the population level – to benefit health, the financial viability of the health system, and the environment.

So get ready for the usual suspects to push for a meat tax. There’s reasonable case for including agriculture in an emissions trading scheme if other agricultural producers are in, and there’s good case for running nutrient management regimes that keep runoff in check. And while there can be a good individual case for preferring free-range pastoral meat to barn-raised meat, and for minimal animal welfare standards, that’s not a case for population-level measures to reduce meat consumption.

And if they want to tax meat because I’m costing the public health system, expectationally, a tiny bit more? Give me a darned opt-out button from the whole system, and a cut to my income taxes to match.

About Eric Crampton (88 Articles)
I'm Head of Research with the New Zealand Initiative.

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