A woman sits at the water's edge.
Credit: Matt Cardy

MALMO, Sweden — Denmark first slapped a fat tax on saturated fats. Now lawmakers plan to hit sugar, and even chocolate consumption, in the second wave of its pioneering assault on the country's bulging waistlines and clogged arteries.

If, as expected, parliament passes the new tax regime next week, Denmark will levy an extra six Danish Kroner ($1.05) on every kilogram of chocolate. The tax would go into effect on January 1.

From 2013, lawmakers plan a levy on the sugar-content of processed food set at as much as 24 Kroner ($4.20) per kilogram.

"The new tax on sugar in food will first be implemented from 2013, and the details will be discussed in the coming year," said Martin Justesen, a spokesman for the Danish tax department. "The rationale is to improve the health in the Danish population by giving a stronger incitement to buy more healthy food."

It's a trend that could be mimicked all over the world, said Dr. Jorgen Dejgard Jensen at Copenhagen University, whose institute proposed the tax.

"It’s very interesting to see that the Danish government has the courage to try these kinds of measures," he said. "From an academic perspective, we’ve tried to advocate for this for several years, so we’re quite excited that we now have the opportunity to learn how they work."

Danish bakers, famed for their flaky cinnamon pastries, are predictably up in arms.

"Our kind of business is so small, that this is going to affect us big time," said Lars Bogs, the owner of Miss Bagel and Coffee in Elsinore. "If people stop buying our stuff, we’re going to have to start firing people, and what good is that going to do Denmark?"

Bogs has mounted a campaign in the Danish parliament since he first learned of the tax changes last month, writing to every single member asking them to vote against the changes when they go before the house next Wednesday.

"Before the tax was only on candy, but now it will be on everything else that includes sugar," Bogs complained. "If you eat cucumbers in brine, that has sugar in it and will be taxed."

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Arne Astrup, head of the human nutrition department at Copenhagen University, said the government was wrong to target chocolate.

"To say that chocolate is unhealthy doesn’t hold any water at all," he told Denmark’s Ekstra Bladet newspaper. "Dark chocolate with no added fat, butter or cream, in particular, has well-documented positive effects."

The Danes are among the developed world’s slimmer peoples, with only one-in-ten classed as obese, compared to one-in-three in the US.

But Dr Jensen points to the extensive evidence linking unhealthy eating to premature deaths.

The first nutritional tax, on saturated fat, has been in effect since October 1. Set at 16 kroner per kilogram ($1.30 per pound) of saturated fat content, the tax pushed the price of a pack of butter up by 45 cents, a bag of potato chips by about 12 cents, and a pound of ground beef by about 20 cents.

Dr Jensen said his institute would not be able to gauge the health impact of that tax, until it received the first data early next year.

Mike Rayner, Director of Oxford University’s Health Promotion Research Group, said that combining the fat tax with higher taxes on sugary products would prevent people substituting fatty foods with sugary treats.

"I think the saturated fat tax by itself would not have been particularly useful, but a saturated fat tax in conjunction with a higher tax on sugary products means they are trying to tackle unhealthy foods on two fronts."

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