Thursday, February 18, 2010

Romanians move to tax their once-beloved fast food


BUCHAREST, Romania — For post-communist Romanians a Big Mac and soda meant much more than a meal: It was a culinary signpost from the free and capitalist west — a sign they too, at last, had arrived.

But modernity requires something different today: the Balkan country is moving to join the health conscious 21st century by proposing taxes on burgers, french fries, soda and other fast foods with high fat and sugar content.

"We have to relearn how to eat," Health Ministry official Adrian Streinu Cercel said.

The ministry says that — in marked contrast to the situation under communism — half of Romania's 22 million people are overweight, while instances of obesity have doubled among 10-year-olds.

Officials have refused to say how high the taxes would be. But Cercel says authorities expect to generate up to euro1 billion ($1.37 billion) in new revenues — compared with an estimated euro16 billion in total revenues for 2010.

If the plan goes through, Romania will be aligning itself with — and even outdoing — other countries looking to crack down on fatty foods and encourage better eating choices.

Taiwan also recently floated a fast food tax, while Denmark and Austria have made artery-clogging trans-fats illegal. Britain, Norway and Sweden have banned junk food commercials from TV at certain times of the day, while Norway also has long taxed sugar and chocolate.

In the United States, first lady Michelle Obama this month unveiled a public awareness campaign called "Let's Move" to fight against childhood obesity, while both New York City and California have gone on the legal offensive by outlawing trans-fats.

But Americans have generally been seen as less willing than Europeans to allow their government to dictate their diets.

Critics of the Romanian proposals agree the government should stick to educating rather than taxing, especially during a recession. Some also criticize the government's plans for exempting pizzas and kebabs and other potentially high-fat dishes, saying the exclusions showed the measure was a "McFat tax" — targeting certain Western fast food outlets — and not something that was truly meant to help the public.

Fast food franchises were not available under the Communist dictatorship that was overthrown in 1989. In the years that followed, the country was so poor that — as elsewhere in Eastern Europe — Western-style fast food was considered a luxury.

When they arrived in the mid-1990s, McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants were widely prized, becoming more affordable and ever more popular as the country developed. In 2007, Romania joined the European Union.

Romania's Health Ministry has been analyzing the nutritional content of some 40,000 fast foods and drinks over the past weeks to decide what exactly should be taxed before submitting the legislation to Parliament next month.

But as Romanians love both their traditional food and fast food options like kekabs, there would likely have been a public outcry if all such foods had been targeted for the tax, nutritionist Gheorghe Mencinicopschi said.

Experts warned against labeling all fast food as bad or all home-cooked food as healthy. For example, a typical Romanian lunch of sarmale — stuffed cabbage rolls smothered in sour cream — followed by walnut-studded yeast cake for dessert is unlikely to be on any recommended diet plan.

"It is dangerous to use generic terms," Mencinicopschi said, noting that different ingredients and cooking style can transform a takeout meal from healthy to horrible.

Romanians spend 40-50 percent of their income on food, to which a 19-percent value-added tax is already applied.

The new fast food tax, if passed, could lead people to pay 20 percent more for fast food products, food industry experts said — a blow to the average Romanian earning about 1,500 lei, or less than euro360 ($500).

Though some say the tax could have a positive impact on people's eating habits, others say it is just a new way to squeeze the taxpayer and could even lead to worse eating habits.

Mihai Visan, who heads the Romalimenta food producer group, said bootlegging increased after the government imposed taxes on alcohol, and cigarette smuggling spiked after tobacco taxes were raised.

"Meat will be taken from unlicensed slaughterhouses, and carcasses will be sold to small producers," Visan said.

World Health Organization nutrition expert Tim Armstrong also said that, while the agency recommends countries consider such taxes to improve eating habits, they could also effectively penalize the poor, who are more likely than the wealthy to buy such products.

Associated Press Writer George Jahn in Vienna and AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.

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