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Hundreds of billions of dollars could be put toward health-care costs every year if a tax was applied to red and processed meat, Oxford University researchers said Wednesday.
A new study from the U.K. university said introducing a health tax on such products would offset health-care costs and prevent more than 220,000 deaths a year globally.
Looking into optimal taxation levels for red and processed meats in nearly 150 countries and regions, researchers concluded that in high-income countries, red meat prices would need to be increased by more than 20 percent, while processed meats would need to more than double in price.
At those levels, the tax would collect $172 billion per year globally, covering 70 percent of the health care costs associated with their consumption. To fully cover those costs, the tax would need to be doubled.
Researchers estimated that in 2020, 2.4 million global deaths will be attributable to the consumption of red and processed meat — as well as a $285 billion health-care bill.
According to the World Health Organization, beef, lamb and pork are carcinogenic when eaten in processed forms, and possibly still carcinogenic when consumed unprocessed. The organization also links them to coronary heart disease, strokes and type 2 diabetes.
As well as offsetting health-care costs, researchers said their proposed tax could lead to a 16 percent decline in the global consumption of processed meat. Reducing the consumption of processed meat would also have a positive effect on climate change by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by over 100 million tons, it said.
Marco Springmann, who led the study, said an overconsumption of red and processed meat had a negative economic impact on many countries.
"I hope that governments will consider introducing a health levy on red and processed meat as part of a range of measures to make healthy and sustainable decision-making easier for consumers," he said in a press release Wednesday.
"Nobody wants governments to tell people what they can and can't eat. However, our findings make it clear that the consumption of red and processed meat has a cost, not just to people's health and to the planet, but also to the health care systems and the economy."
However, Carrie Ruxton, a public health nutritionist and dietitian, argued that meat consumption had already seen a significant decline in the U.K., adding that red meat provided valuable nutrients to diets.
"A tax on red meat would be a retrograde step, both for overall diet quality in women and girls and for health inequalities," she said in a statement emailed to CNBC.
"There is no high-quality evidence linking red and processed meat with heart disease, stroke or diabetes, and a risk of bowel cancer only applies when weekly intakes exceed 700g. As few people in the U.K. are at this level of consumption, a general meat tax would be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut."
Chris Mallon, chief executive of the U.K.'s National Beef Association, told CNBC in an email: "A general meat tax would be an excessive over reaction. Chronic disease prevention would be far more effective if it focused on smoking, excess drinking, and body weight rather than a single food source like meat, which brings many nutritional benefits."
Researchers who worked on the study likened their proposed tax to levies on other products that damage consumers' health, such as tobacco, alcohol and sugar. However, with different laws in different jurisdictions a global meat tax would prove very hard to implement.
In recent years, several nations and states have introduced taxes on sugary soft drinks in an attempt to curb burdens on health systems.
The U.K. introduced a tax on high-sugar soft drinks in 2016, while efforts are being made in California to push through a levy on sugary sodas. While the United Nations has explicitly encouraged the adoption of such taxes, the repealing of a sugar tax in Cook County, Illinois, last year could slow efforts in other cities.