A price-hiking "meat tax" could prevent about 220,000 deaths and save more than £30.7 billion in healthcare costs around the world each year, say researchers.

The study is based on evidence linking consumption of "red" meat, such as beef, lamb and pork, to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

Scientists set out to estimate the level of health tax needed to make up for healthcare costs associated with eating meat in 149 regions around the world.

They also calculated the likely impact of a meat tax on death rates due to chronic disease.

By 2020, consumption of red and processed meat was likely to cause 2.4 million deaths per year and cost the global economy 285 billion US dollars (£219 billion), the study found.

Meat tax levels high enough to counteract healthcare costs varied from country to country.

In the UK, the "optimal" tax level increased the cost of red meat by 14 per cent and processed meat by 79 per cent.

Despite the huge impact on the price of burgers, sausages, mince and steak, the scientists behind the study called on governments to consider imposing a meat tax.

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.

"Nobody wants governments to tell people what they can and can’t eat.

"However, our findings make it clear that the consumption of red and processed meat has a cost, not just to people’s health and to the planet, but also to the healthcare systems and the economy."

The World Health Organisation has classified beef, lamb and pork as carcinogenic when eaten in processed form, and "probably" cancer-causing when consumed unprocessed.

Red meat consumption has also been associated with increased rates of coronary heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.

The study, published in the journal Public Library of Science ONE, indicated that a health tax could reduce consumption of processed meat such as bacon and sausages by about two portions per week in high-income countries.

Higher taxes on processed meat were also expected to cause consumers to switch to eating more unprocessed meat.

As a result, consumption of unprocessed meat was predicted to remain unchanged by 2020.

The global benefits of a meat tax included a 16 per cent reduction in processed meat consumption, and the prevention of 222,000 deaths from cancer, heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.

In addition an estimated 3,800 deaths related to obesity would be prevented, the study found.

"Optimal" meat taxes in several other countries were significantly higher than in the UK, according to the research.

In the US, the measure resulted in red meat costing 34 per cent more and the price of processed meat soaring by 163%.

An effective tax in Sweden increased the price of processed meat by a whopping 185 per cent and that of red meat by 27 per cent.

Taxing meat in Germany at a level high enough to offset health costs led to red meat being 28 per cent more expensive and the price of processed meat rising by 166 per cent.

The same policy in Denmark resulted in red meat being taxed at 29 per cent and processed meat at 119 per cent.

But in China optimal tax levels were much lower – 7 per cent on red meat and 43 per cent on processed meat, the study found.

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