Text by Paul Ciocoiu for Southeast European Times*
1 March 2010 | The latest proposal by the Romanian government to increase state revenue is a tax on fast food, amid growing consumption of it.
State Secretary for Health Dr Streinu-Cercel initiated the idea late last year, purportedly as a way to steer Romanians away from junk food and improve nutrition. An estimated 25 per cent of Romania's 22 million people are said to be overweight, a trend mirroring the rise of fast food in the country.
The subsequent draft law submitted for public debate stated the intent, "to discourage the consumption of food rich in salt, sugar, fats and additives".
Food producer associations have warned that implementing the law -- scheduled for this spring -- will hike fast food prices by at least 20 per cent, and could lead to layoffs of nearly 36,000 employees, about one-fifth of all food workers.
The health ministry however, rejected the food lobby's figures as unfounded and said the tax -- which will also apply to soft drinks -- will bring 1 billion euros to the state budget, part of which will be applied to public health programmes.
In debating the tax, bloggers said the government is hiding behind health concerns to shield a blatant move to take people's money.
Acsel said it was predictable. "Fortunately or unfortunately, Romanians enjoy eating junk food. When they heard about the fast food tax, they were all up in arms," he says. But the government realised that "many citizens stuff themselves with fast food, so it just looked for a good reason -- obesity in this case -- to levy the tax and the rest will follow."
Octavian Ungureanu reacted with sarcasm. "Next is the scratching or sneezing tax ... but as long as they don't apply the folly tax, we are safe," he said.
Said Cristian Margarit -- "Instead of collecting more money, for instance from tax evaders, they place additional financial burden on the ordinary citizen. Because the junk food consumer is generally a low-income poorly-educated man, so the food of the poor is likened to a vice."
Clau P speaks for those who are concerned about the law's potential negative economic effects. "If this stupid draft law comes into force, there will definitely be food producers who will go bankrupt." She questions the government's intentions, given that junk food is not the sole cause of the obesity problem in Romania. "The overweight problem is not entirely due to donuts, chips and juice, but also to lack of physical training."
Journalist Victor Ciutacu sees a deeper political meaning in the draft law. "This proposal to tax soft drinks, hamburgers and sweets ... is nothing else but a delicate invitation to the big producers and importers to come to private negotiations," he says.
According to Ciutacu, there are only two outcomes: "If the informal talks are successful, the population will be joyfully informed their complaints have been listened to and their justified revolt is understood. If not, our children will eat and drink more expensively, but not necessarily more healthy."
And there are supporters. Andrei Babcinetchi explains that taxing vice is a normal practice in many countries. "The new tax is a summons for people to choose between good and bad -- healthy and unhealthy food. By consuming fast food, I myself assume a risk and I pay for this risk," he explains. "The only problem is where the collected money ends up. It is important it goes to a fund that only the ministry of health has access to."