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France considers raising tax on fatty foods

/ Source: The Associated Press

Cheese, pastries, foie gras — France’s culinary delights are full of dietary sins. Now child obesity is rising and the myth is fading that French people can eat anything and stay thin. So the government is fighting back.

The latest anti-fat idea being presented to French officialdom: an increase in sales taxes on extra-fatty, salty or sugary products.

Previous government efforts included posters suggesting that subway riders take the stairs instead of escalators, and advisories prominently displayed on ads for junk food telling people to eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day.

An expert report suggesting increasing taxes on unhealthy food items from the current 5.5 percent to up to 19.6 percent, was submitted to the health and budget ministries in late July, an official from the Budget Ministry confirmed Wednesday. The official could not be cited by name because of ministry rules.

The findings of the report — which remains confidential because it is still under discussion — were leaked to Les Echos newspaper Tuesday.

Details of the tax remain to be hammered out.

Famous French foods or just processed junk?

It was not yet clear, for example, whether it would apply to famously fatty cheese that French consumers buy at outdoor markets and to eclairs from the bakery, or just processed junk foods that have nutritional content listed on their packaging.

The higher sales taxes, if implemented, would go in part toward patching a huge deficit in the French state health care system.

Last year, France’s senators had called for so-called nutritional taxes, but then stepped back from the plan, instead commissioning the expert study to look into its feasibility.

The findings will be presented to legislators in September, said the Budget Ministry official. Lawmakers could then debate the measures suggested, either in part or as a whole package.

However, the idea of increasing the sales tax already faces stiff opposition from Budget Minister Eric Woerth.

“It is out of the question to raise sales taxes on food products, even more so given the difficult context of the French population’s purchasing power,” he said Wednesday.

Decreased purchasing power — caused by inflation and stagnant salaries — is a growing concern in France, as gas and food prices have shot up over the past year. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government has been working on reforms to make good on his campaign promise to improve spending power.

The expert report was written by France’s inspection agencies on social affairs and on finances.