A price-hiking “meat tax” could prevent almost 6,000 deaths per year in the UK and save the economy more than £700 million in avoided healthcare costs, say researchers.
Globally, meat taxes could save an estimated 220,000 lives by 2020 and reduce healthcare costs by £30.7 billion, a study has found.
The research is based on evidence linking consumption of “red” meat - such as beef, lamb and pork - to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
Scientists set out to calculate the level of health tax needed to make up for healthcare costs associated with eating meat in 149 regions around the world.
They also estimated the likely impact of a meat tax on death rates due to chronic disease.
By 2020, consumption of red and processed meat was likely to cause 2.4 million deaths per year and cost the global economy 285 billion US dollars (£219 billion), the study found.
Meat tax levels high enough to be effective varied from country to country.
In the UK, the “optimal” tax level increased the cost of red meat by 14% and processed meat by 79%.
Despite the huge impact on the price of burgers, sausages, mince and steak, the scientists behind the study called on all governments to consider imposing meat taxes.
Lead researcher Dr Marco Springmann, from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at Oxford University, said: “The consumption of red and processed meat exceeds recommended levels in most high and middle-income countries.
“This is having significant impacts not only on personal health, but also on healthcare systems, which are taxpayer-funded in many countries, and on the economy, which is losing its labour force due to ill health and care for family members who fall ill.
“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.
“A health levy on red and processed meat would not limit choices, but send a powerful signal to consumers and take pressure off our healthcare systems.
“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 healthcare systems and the economy.”
The World Health Organisation has classified beef, lamb and pork as carcinogenic when eaten in processed form, and “probably” cancer-causing when consumed unprocessed.
Red meat consumption has also been associated with increased rates of coronary heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
The study, published in the journal Public Library of Science ONE, indicated that a health tax could reduce consumption of processed meat such as bacon and sausages by about two portions per week in high-income countries.
Higher taxes on processed meat were also expected to cause consumers to switch to eating more unprocessed meat.
As a result, consumption of unprocessed meat was predicted to remain unchanged by 2020.
The global benefits of a meat tax included a 16% reduction in processed meat consumption, and the prevention of 222,000 deaths from cancer, heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
In addition, an estimated 3,800 deaths related to obesity would be prevented, the study found.
For the UK alone, an effective meat tax that offset healthcare costs would prevent 5,920 deaths per year. That would amount to a reduction in the number of deaths attributed to eating meat of 15.6%.
“Optimal” meat taxes in several other countries were significantly higher than in the UK, according to the research.
In the US, the measure resulted in red meat costing 34% more and the price of processed meat soaring by 163%.
An effective tax in Sweden increased the price of processed meat by a whopping 185% and that of red meat by 27%.
Taxing meat in Germany at an effective level led to red meat being 28% more expensive and the price of processed meat rising by 166%.
The same policy in Denmark resulted in red meat being taxed at 29% and processed meat at 119%.
But in China optimal tax levels were much lower - 7% on red meat and 43% on processed meat, the study found.
Louise Meincke, from the World Cancer Research Fund, said: “Governments need to implement more evidence-informed policies to help make our daily environments healthier so that it is easier for people to make these healthy choices.
“This research, looking at the potential effects of a meat tax, shows it could help reduce the level of meat consumption, similar to how a sugar-sweetened beverage tax works, as well as offset costs to the healthcare system and improve environmental sustainability.”
Louise Davies, head of campaigns at the Vegan Society, said: “We need to consider the negative impact of animal farming on the environment, animals and human health. One way to reduce that impact would be a meat tax, which we would welcome, but another option would be to address the subsidies currently given to animal farming.
“A meat tax need not be particularly controversial given the prevalence of alternatives to meat and their benefits. Meat does not contain fibre, whereas beans, peas and lentils are fibre-rich and they can count as one of your five-a-day.”