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(CNN) — It would drive up the price of your barbecue but a global “meat tax” could save 220,000 lives and cut health care bills by $41 billion each year, according to a new study.
The numbers are based on evidence that links meat consumption to increased risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.
Three years ago, the World Health Organization declared red meat such as beef, lamb and pork to be carcinogenic when eaten in processed forms, including sausages, bacon and beef jerky.
Health officials have also declared that unprocessed red meat like steak and burgers are “probably” carcinogenic. Other carcinogens such as cigarettes and alcohol are regulated in order to reduce cases of chronic disease.
A team of researchers led by Dr. Marco Springmann, from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at Oxford University, estimated the rate of tax that would be necessary to offset health care costs related to red meat consumption.
“The least intrusive form of regulation is a tax to raise prices and reduce consumption,” Springmann told CNN.
Researchers concluded that the UK government should introduce a tax of 79% on processed meat such as bacon, and 14% on unprocessed meat such as steak.
In the US these numbers would be 163% and 34% respectively. “The tax is higher in the US due to an inefficient health system that wastes a lot of money,” said Springmann.
They also calculated the projected impact of a so-called meat tax on death rates due to chronic disease. With reduced consumption of red meat, the study, published on November 6, claims there would be 220,000 fewer deaths from chronic disease per year around the world. Of that total, 6,000 deaths would be avoided in the UK and 53,000 in the US.
Global savings on health care would reach $41 billion, according to the report, which was published in the journal Public Library of Science ONE. The UK would save $1 billion per year, while the US would reduce spending by $20 billion.
The benefits of reducing red meat consumption also go beyond reducing rates of disease and health care costs.
“Consuming red and processed meat not only affects your health but also the economy at large,” said Springmann, citing decreased productivity due to illness and care for family members who suffer with chronic disease.
Regular consumption of processed meat has also been linked to a 9% higher risk of breast cancer, according to an analysis of various scientific studies that was published in October.
In fact, eating any ultra-processed food can increase the risk of cancer, obesity and diabetes, according to other research. That includes anything made with artificial flavors, additives and emulsifiers, or high levels of sugar and salt.
Governments around the world have already shown a willingness to tax products that have been linked with health problems, including cigarettes, alcohol and sugar.
The UK government announced a new tax on sugary drinks in 2016 in an attempt to cut consumption, and more than 50% of manufacturers have reduced the amount of sugar in their drinks to avoid the levy which came into effect in April.