There’s a global obesity epidemic, experts have warned in a series of articles in medical journal The Lancet. Lifestyle changes have made it more difficult for people to be healthy. Without state action, the study attests, diseases related to obesity (such as diabetes) could swamp the health care system in the next few decades. The solutions they propose are manifold, but the most contentious is the introduction of a tax on unhealthy foods – amounting to a “fat tax”.
In the UK we don’t exercise, we eat too many rich foods, and our population is ageing. In a worst-case scenario, half of men, and 40 percent of women, the study predicts, will be obese by 2030. An extra 668,000 cases of diabetes are predicted, 461,000 of heart disease, and 130,000 of cancer over the next 20 years. (Don’t forget – these are only predictions, based on current trends.)
The study predicted that obesity rates would rise from a quarter (as it now is) to 40per cent by 2030. This would cost the National Health Service £2 billion more a year. In America, the proportion of obese people would rise from 1 in 3 to 1 in 2. The study recommended that governments take action by imposing taxes on unhealthy foods, instituting educational programmes, and imposing restrictions on junk food advertising.
The scientists say that the government has been afraid to act so far as it fears being seen as a nanny state; others say it’s because they don’t want to take on the enormous junk food lobby.
There’s already taxes on fatty dairy products in Denmark, Hungary is introducing a “hamburger tax,” and Finland already taxes “sugar-laced food.” Swedish economists are also pushing for a “calorie-driven tax.”
The prospect of a food tax in the United Kingdom remains unlikely, as it’s a political minefield: poor people, it is argued, will be unjustly burdened. David Cameron believes in “nudging” people to better health through incentives, and in working with businesses instead of raising taxes.
The food industry is, inevitably, against the idea. The Daily Telegraph quoted Andrew Opie, food director at the British Retail Consortium, who said: “There’s no such thing as an unhealthy food just an unhealthy diet. Demonising particular foods is not the answer. The tax regime already discriminates against many processed foods by subjecting them to VAT.”
- Sharing is caring. Twitter reactions were glib: Sarah Hewson, the Sky News presenter, said “Feeling guilty for eating a donut while reading shocking warnings about obesity crisis – so have halved it with @cbingsky“, whilst David Nobbs, the creator of Reginald Perrin, said “so tougher action is needed to defeat obesity. Fat chance.”
- Junk food is like smoking. The Independent’s leader argued that it’s time the food industry took a leaf out of the tobacco industry’s book. There should be “a fat tax.” The idea was suggested in 2004, but was vetoed as it was thought to fall too much on the poor. But smoking has now become “a minority pastime.” Junk food should be tackled in the same way. Ill health caused by obesity does fall disproportionately on the poor, who have “most to gain.” A fat tax would shore up health budgets. “It awaits a government with the moral courage to drive it through.”
“Governments have abdicated responsibility. Like a frog sitting in a pan of hot water, we haven’t realised what’s been happening until it’s too late,” said Boyd Swinburn from the centre for obesity prevention at Melbourne’s Deakin University.
- It could go too far. “Why stop at fat?” asked Martin Olasky on World magazine. Why not tax some kinds of rice more than others? “Better yet, why let people shop at all? In a few years we’ll be able to go the government food distribution office and get our rations for the week, precisely measured out for our weight.”
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