Romanians move to tax fast food

Half of population now overweight

For Romanians, fast-food shops are a signpost from the West that they have arrived, but modernity has raised health issues. For Romanians, fast-food shops are a signpost from the West that they have arrived, but modernity has raised health issues. (Vadim Ghirda/ Associated Press)
By Alison Mutler
Associated Press / March 7, 2010

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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,’’ said Adrian Streinu Cercel, a Health Ministry official.

The ministry says that - in marked contrast to the situation under communism - half of Romania’s 22 million people are overweight.

Officials have refused to say how high the taxes would be. But Cercel says authorities expect to generate up to $1.37 billion in new revenues.

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 recently 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 meant to help the public.