The Independent reports that the obesity crises is really going to hit Britain over the next twenty years with increased levels of heart disease, diabetes and related health issues. The newspaper has called for the introduction of a Fat Tax:
Swingeing tobacco taxes have made smoking a minority pastime. We should tackle junk food in the same way. The argument that a fat (or soft-drink) tax would be regressive ignores the fact that the ill health caused by obesity (as by tobacco) falls disproportionately on the poor. They have the most to gain from cutting consumption. A fat tax would achieve more than a fistful of public health campaigns – and would help shore up health care budgets under pressure as never before. It awaits a government with the moral courage to drive it through.
This idea was also supported in some of the research from the Harvard School of Public Health.
“A one-cent-an-ounce tax on sweetened beverages would bring in $1.5bn (£920,000) a year in California, reduce obesity rates, reduce disease and lower healthcare costs,” Professor Gortaker said. “So why don’t people do it? It may be because there is a $50bn industry to counter that tax.”
The UK has always tried to work with industries to get them to self-regulate. It didn’t work with the alcohol, media, energy, freight and many other industries and it isn’t working with the food one either.
The Diabetes Choices blog has suggestions for how the industry could self regulate. Some are sensible, some are a little too narrow in their focus. Most of them call for more honesty in labels – avoiding phrases like “low-fat” that can be misleading. This is a fair point and one which the traffic light system was meant to support. It also suggests, rightly, that quantities need to be addressed – moving away from the “grab-bags” or “sharing” portions. I particularly like their suggestion of banning the sale of discounted sweets and chocolates when buying non-food items. WHSmith are appalling on this – would you like to buy a massive bar of Galaxy for just 50p with this newspaper? Clearly the retailers have to develop a stronger moral code on this too. The blog also wants cereal bars stocked alongside confectionary because they are not healthy.
At this stage I’m leaning towards the Fat Tax approach. The argument that the poor, those who tend to buy cheap fatty foods, would be disproportionately affected by the tax may have an element of truth. But it is also this group that disproportionately are likely to become obese. There are several websites where people demonstrate how they feed a family of four for £100 per month – bulk buying, cooking and freezing. It is probably offensive to suggest that just because you have a low income you cannot feed yourself healthily.
There is one word that kept popping up under Blair. Hypothecation: the principle of raising taxes for specific purposes. Paddy Ashdown’s remarkable “penny in the pound for education” was a brilliant example. Fat Tax could be hypothecated for spending on preventative healthcare and education, cooking lessons and vouchers to help those on lower incomes develop healthier lifestyles.