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Danes May Bring Back Butter As Government Rolls Back 'Fat Tax'

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Danes May Bring Back Butter As Government Rolls Back 'Fat Tax'

Eating And Health

Danes May Bring Back Butter As Government Rolls Back 'Fat Tax'

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Just over a year ago, Denmark became the first country in the world to impose a tax on saturated fat. Now whether this tax has actually succeeded in trimming waistlines is up for debate. But it has caused enough controversy that, come January, this short-lived experiment will be over.

As Sidsel Overgaard reports, it turns out raising the price of fat isn't so popular in a country whose lexicon includes the word tooth-butter.

SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: Toothbutter. You know, when there's so much butter on your bread that each bite leaves a stripe where your teeth have been? Denmark's obesity rate may be low compared to many other countries, but its love of meat and dairy had officials in the previous administration worried enough to levy the so-called fat tax last October. On a pound of butter, it amounts to about 75 cents.


OVERGAARD: As Gundi Halfmann wheels her shopping basket through a grocery store in the city of Herning, she says the tax has definitely changed a few of her habits over the past year.

GUNDI HALFMANN: (Through Translator) Yes, it has. I haven't bought liver pate in a long time. It's simply become too expensive. You used to be able to get it for 15 kroner and now it can be all the way up at 30. It's crazy. If you're even a little bit price-wise, you can definitely feel the difference.

OVERGAARD: The problem is that what's good for Danish arteries is not necessarily good for Danish business. Halfmann, like many residents in this part of the country, indulges in shopping sprees across the German border, where things like beer and wine have always been cheaper.

HALFMANN: (Through Translator) When we drive over the border, there is more being bought than before - other things. It used to be cigarettes and soda and wine, now it's meat products. You could see it in all the shopping carts.

OVERGAARD: Those two things - reduced consumption and more shopping in Germany -add up to bad news for workers like Ole Skov Christensen.

OLE SKOV CHRISTENSEN: I work in a dairy business so it was quite a shock to us. And we were afraid that our sales would go down. And as I saw recently, it was going down 20 percent.

OVERGAARD: No surprise, then, that the Danish Chamber of Commerce has been fighting the fat tax every step of the way. Head of food policy, Lotte Engbaek Larsen says it's been a struggle for producers and importers who have to grapple with an incredibly complex tax formula. She says this year the fat tax brought in about $250 million and cost $30 million to administer.

LOTTE ENGBAEK LARSEN: The tax is so complicated that you have to foresee a lot of administrative burden in the future as well, because the food market is very dynamic and food changes all the time. You know, new recipes, new product lines and so on. So therefore, you have to recalculate this tax all the time, and that makes it very burdensome.

OVERGAARD: Every one of these issues was cited by the Danish tax ministry in its explanation of why the fat tax will be abolished as part of the government's 2013 budget. But the real story, says shopper Karen Marie Massen, is that what hurts businesses and consumers, hurts politicians.

KAREN MARIE MASSEN: (Through Translator) They change everything around all the time to score points. That's politics at its height. It's just to get votes.

OVERGAARD: Like most Danes in this grocery store, Massen says she agrees with the goal of the tax in principle. It's just that right now, on the scale of voter concerns, there's no question that economics is outweighing weight.

For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Herning, Denmark.

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