Is Meat the New Tobacco? What a Meat Tax Means for the Planet

Is Meat the New Tobacco: What a Meat Tax Means
Photo by Zoltan Kovacs on Unsplash

While little compares to the cool factor of Humphrey Bogart pulling on a Chesterfield in “Casablanca” nearly seventy-five years ago, cigarettes today aren’t so cool (Bogey still is, of course). Credit can go to decades of health awareness campaigns that peeled back the cello wrap on the industry’s clever (and even illegal) marketing campaigns that convinced consumers cigarettes were necessities.

Study after study overwhelmingly confirmed that smoking is a recipe for poor health and a shorter life. But it wasn’t until heavy taxes and moves like the drugstore chain CVS announcing in 2014 that it would stop selling cigarettes, that the habit quickly fell out of fashion. Millennials, who are more focused on their health than previous generations, are smoking less, further driving the industry into history. And if environmentalists have their way, meat could be the next industry to go the way of tobacco. Enter: the meat tax.

“‘Sin taxes’ on meat to reduce its huge impact on climate change and human health look inevitable,” notes the Guardian.

The tax aims to curb the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the livestock industry, which by some estimates produces 15 percent of all GHGs, but others put the industry at a whopping 51 percent of all emissions.

Why such a range?

Because meat is more than merely the cows it’s made from; it’s the feed that must be grown for the animals (and the pesticides used on it), the energy used to run the massive farms, the transport of animals to slaughter and then the meat to market. And with more than 55 billion animals raised for food each year around the world, it’s easy to do the math. There’s eight times the number of livestock animals on earth than humans right now, and as our population grows and our demand for meat increases, that number coud soon double.

Without a reduction in greenhouse gases, we’re facing dire climate crises. And according to a recent analysis from the investor network Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (Fairr) Initiative, a tax on meat like those on tobacco, carbon emissions, and sugar, is critical to reducing our dependence on livestock.

“If policymakers are to cover the true cost of human epidemics like obesity, diabetes and cancer, and livestock epidemics like avian flu, while also tackling the twin challenges of climate change and antibiotic resistance, then a shift from subsidisation to taxation of the meat industry looks inevitable,” Jeremy Coller, the founder of Fairr and the chief investment officer at the private equity firm Coller Capital told the Guardian. “Far-sighted investors should plan ahead for this day.”

Maria Lettini, director of Fairr, said: “As implementation of the Paris climate agreement progresses we’re highly likely to see government action to reduce the environmental impact of the global livestock sector. On the current pathway we may well see some form of meat tax emerge within five to 10 years.”

Models done last year on what a meat tax would look like for the planet showed a 40 percent tax on meat (as well as 20 percent on dairy and 8.5 percent on chicken), would save more than half a million human lives per year and drastically reduce GHG emissions.

“It’s only a matter of time before agriculture becomes the focus of serious climate policy,” Rob Bailey at Chatham House told the Guardian. “The public health case will likely strengthen government resolve, as we have seen with coal and diesel. It’s hard to imagine concerted action to tax meat today, but over the course of the next 10 to 20 years, I would expect to see meat taxes accumulate.”

Like taxes on tobacco have moved people away from the bad habit, the hope is the meat tax would steer consumers toward alternative proteins like those coming from plants, clean meat, even insects.

There are other benefits to moving away from animal food; there are the growing ethical concerns for both the animals and farm and slaughterhouse workers. Undercover investigations routinely show systemic abuses of animals in factory farm settings where tens — and  sometimes hundreds — of thousands of animals are housed together. There are labor rights violations — workers being denied bathroom breaks; undocumented workers being victims of wage theft, being passed over for promotion, and forced into substandard living situations provided by the farms for high rent; and there are severe job-related injuries and mental health issues that can forever change the life of a worker.

But while the meat tax aims at curbing the industry’s impact on our climate, it may most mirror the tobacco tax in helping move people toward a healthier diet and lifestyle. Studies have found diets high in animal-based products are more often linked to increased risks of preventable diseases like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and even cancer. Plant-based diets, on the other hand, are routinely found to improve health, prevent the onset of obesity and type-2 diabetes, critical in the prevention of cancer (and even in the treatment). Plant-based diets have been linked to a longer life-span, a reduced risk of heart disease, and even diseases like Alzheimer’s.

But if the cool factor of meat (or tobacco) still matters to you, consider that if Bogey were alive today, he would probably have been sipping on a green juice as he watched Ingrid Bergman board that plane, or, probably, he wouldn’t have seen her leaving at all. He would have been too busy loading up his Instagram page with pics of juicy plant-based Beyond Burgers instead of nervously inhaling the tobacco that would eventually kill him.

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.