A tax on meat could prevent almost 6,000 deaths a year in the UK and save the economy more than £700m in healthcare costs, according to researchers.
A study has found meat taxes could save an estimated 220,000 lives globally by 2020 and reduce healthcare costs by £30.7bn.
Consumption of red meat such as beef, lamb and pork has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
Scientists wanted to calculate the level of tax that would be required to make up for healthcare costs associated with eating meat in 149 regions around the world.
The likely impact of a meat tax on death rates due to chronic disease was also estimated.
Consumption of red and processed meat was likely to cause 2.4 million deaths per year by 2020 and cost the global economy $285bn (£219bn), the study found.
The amount of meat tax required to make it effective varied from country to country.
In the UK, the “optimal” tax level increased the cost of red meat by 14% and processed meat by 79%.
Although the tax would massively push up the price of burgers, sausages, mince and steak, scientists behind the study called on all governments to consider imposing it.
Lead researcher Dr Marco Springmann, from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at Oxford University, said: “The consumption of red and processed meat exceeds recommended levels in most high and middle-income countries.
“This is having significant impacts not only on personal health, but also on healthcare systems, which are taxpayer-funded in many countries, and on the economy, which is losing its labour force due to ill health and care for family members who fall ill.
“I hope that governments will consider introducing a health levy on red and processed meat as part of a range of measures to make healthy and sustainable decision-making easier for consumers.
“A health levy on red and processed meat would not limit choices, but send a powerful signal to consumers and take pressure off our healthcare systems.”
The World Health Organisation has classified beef, lamb and pork as carcinogenic when eaten in processed form, and said it was “probably” cancer-causing when consumed unprocessed.
Increased rates of coronary heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes have also been associated with eating red meat.
Globally the benefits of a meat tax included a 16% reduction in processed meat consumption, and the prevention of 222,000 deaths from cancer, heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
An estimated 3,800 deaths related to obesity would be prevented, the study – published in the journal Public Library of Science ONE – found.
In the UK, an effective meat tax that offset healthcare costs would prevent 5,920 deaths per year amounting to a reduction in the number of deaths attributed to eating meat of 15.6%.
Louise Meincke, from the World Cancer Research Fund, said: “This research, looking at the potential effects of a meat tax, shows it could help reduce the level of meat consumption, similar to how a sugar-sweetened beverage tax works, as well as offset costs to the healthcare system and improve environmental sustainability.”