Could a tax on unhealthy food improve health?

Josh Barrie

146650360 300x247 Could a tax on unhealthy food improve health?Apparently, Oswald Mosley has made an unwelcome return to the east end. A new breed of black shirts, this time clad in red, are marching through the Olympic village imposing rules that we must all adhere to. If we don’t? Goodness knows what might happen.

We are one of the fattest countries in the world. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, we come in at 7th place. Quite possibly a reflection on where we’ll end up this summer in all too many events. Either way, only those from the US, along with a few other nations, will come over and fail to look slightly shocked upon gazing at row upon row of chubby onlookers; their man boobs wobbling in the tarnished London air, buttocks bulging off newly fitted Olympic seats. How fitting then, that we’re now boasting the biggest McDonald’s on the planet.

In the backdrop to culinary questioning, the issue of fat tax remains, held aloft between delicate promises and indecision. David Cameron is said to be weighing up the idea. Such an intervention would indeed be met with a degree of cynicism: would such a tax hit the poorest hardest? Well, an outright fat tax might, but a health-related food tax, with a subsidy on healthier foods taken from the extra revenue sought from higher taxes would counter the negativity. In Jersey for example, ‘when a three per cent GST on all foods was introduced, the regressive nature for low income consumers was countered in the benefits system.’ 

There is no doubt that fat tax sceptics make valid points concerning education and information. Greater understanding from early years in schools and bolder, more significant displays on packaging may deter those who regularly dive into a Big Mac. But is classroom proposition enough? And what about all those people in which such a lifestyle is ingrained into already? Are they but lost causes?

In a recent study by the Food and Ethics Council, food taxation is discussed at length. Although the idea of health-related food tax has been around for a while now, there is limited information as to its feasibility. Countries such as Denmark, Hungary and recently France have all implemented some form, though results are difficult to quantify in such early stages.

Any such incision into food pricing here may well be argued with complaints about more ‘government intervention,’ the fact that a simplified additional taxation on food is ‘regressive,’ and indeed, the matter of hitting the poorest hardest because they are the those who are more inclined to buy cheaper foods; usually of lesser quality and nutrition. What’s more, for a taxation to have demonstrable effects, 20 per cent would be necessary. With such an increase, subsidies would have to be introduced for it to be fair. Punishing those who have grown up in an environment where chicken dippers are a normality would not do the Government any favours whatsoever.

While most agree there is more we could be doing to tackle obesity and the diseases associated with it, experiments into the effectiveness of measures such as ‘fat tax’ are up for debate. However, with the situation still dire, isn’t it time for some drastic movements?

There is plenty of positivity in terms of what has been attributed to a health-related food tax of some kind thus far. For example: ‘One study showed that a 35 per cent tax on sweetened soft beverages in a canteen led to a 26 per cent decline in sales.’ And in Ireland during the 1980s, a study ‘found an 11 per cent decrease in consumption for each 10 per cent increase in price.’

However, problems arise when taxes are imposed, but are set too low to have any real effect. For instance: ‘Modelling studies on sugar sweetened beverages in the US predict a daily reduction in energy consumption of up to 209 kJ per person for a 20 per cent tax. This is predicted to reduce the prevalence of obesity by 3.5 per cent – though no state currently imposes a tax as high as 20 per cent; the average is around 5 per cent.’

This study also accepts that if not carefully monitored, such an instrument if simply injected into the tax system would not necessarily improve food poverty and health inequalities this country suffers from. Would those with an unhealthy lifestyle just look for cheaper products of the same kind, rather than moving to fruit and vegetables for example? But as stated, such an instrument partnered with health food subsidies, education and Jamie Oliver, obviously, would potentially nudge shoppers into finally thinking more about what they put in their mouths. Creating an environment in which everyone can afford blueberries, is surely as progressive as we can get right now.

The suggestion from this study is an introductory 20 per cent tax on sweetened soft drinks, such as Coca Cola no less, that would allow the government to gauge how effective such measures are. It is not government nannying, but a simple ideal of improving the lifestyle and wellbeing of people across the UK; as well of course, to limit spiralling health costs.

 As complex as it would be to put into practice, I find it hard to see how a health-related food tax would do anything other than good in a society where people eat bargain buckets as regularly as they eat apples.

There is no doubt that something has to be done to tackle our bloated consumerism, and while improved education may create a more knowledgeable, savvy shopper in years to come, there is a very definite problem now that needs to be addressed. When it’s relatively commonplace to encounter a sober couple eating doner kebabs on the bus home from work, you know things are on the brink of calamity.

Tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,
  • saltashsally

    So what are you saying? Fill animals with cheap food so we reap the ill effects…Er! No!

  • saltashsally

    The root of our current problems lie with the Conservative government way back in the 1980’s. Nigel Lawson came out with some wonderful policies that got people spending as though there was no tomorrow on borrowed money. The banks made millions. Council homes were sold off, council workmen were laid off as jobs were put out to tender in the private sector. The government shifted the responsibility of the railways, gas, electric and water etc. onto the private sector so that shareholders were the priority, not the customers or the workforce. Look back at some of Arthur Scargil’s speeches and see if what he was predicting way back then hasn’t come to fruition now. You can’t lay the problems of major long term poor investment into the British manufacturing trade into one short decade. No wonder the far east has done so well, while Britain has gradually got an ever increasing number of people out of work. We have sent all our manufacturing requirements to be done overseas. It’s cheaper to produce goods in countries that have no health and safety, no unions and no minimum wage. If you want to know why we are like we are now – today, then go back to the 1980’s and see what was happening and being put into being then. It’s all very well putting forward these comments but don’t think for one moment that all these drama’s have been created recently – they have not.

  • minyacky

    What is needed is not taxation, but regulation – particularly with regard to the amount of sugar, trans fats and salt in processed foods.

  • minyacky

    I’ve been there myself – bloody awful, isn’t it??

    One word of advice: cut down on the carbs -they are essentially sugars and will cause you to feel hungry again quite soon after eating.
    Soup before each meal helps you to feel more satisfied for longer and is a valuable source of nutrients.
    Hope this doesn’t sound patronising – just trying to share what I found helped me

  • Skadhi_the_Raverner

    Increasing the cost of anything unnecessary really does curtail consumption. Yes, foods that are high in saturated fats ought to be taxed more highly then they can’t be a staple diet.

  • swishtrish

    There is already a tax on “unhealthy ” food, it’s called VAT. It is paid on all takeaways, chocs, crisps & fizzy drinks etc

  • arand1936

    A bank employee friend of mine tells me that he made a 5yr loan at 25% interest. I asked him if it was an emergency of some sort assuming that nobody would ever take out a loan at that rate. He said that it was for clothes and a holiday. He explained to the borrower that he would have to pay back double the amount that he borrowed. He explained it twice. He told him that he thought it frivolous and that he should go home and reconsider the idea ( yes, my friend is a banker with a conscience). The guy told him “I understand. I am not stupid. I am poor….I have a clean credit profile. Can I have the money.” Stop blaming bankers. You don’t need an iPad, you don’t need an iPhone, you don’t need a ski holiday, you don’t need trendy clothes, you probably don’t need a car, you don’t need to buy a round in a expensive wine bar if you can’t afford it. Pay cash, live 6 to a 2 bed apartment, where jeans, eat pasta at home, buy the cheap and untrendy phone and stop making stupid financial decisions!!!!!!!!

  • trisul

    “I’d like to see articles written sympathetically about life on low incomes with food prices rocketing. As to eating takeaways or burgers etc. I have never eaten that kind of food but I understand people who do like it, eating it as a comfort in a life made distressing by poverty. Sadly that stuff appears to be addictive.”

    I am heartened to read that you have avoided that trap. More and more people on low income fall into it, making a bad situation worse. It has always been so.The only hint I have is rice, which you have not mentioned. As nutrition, rice is much superior to pasta and potato.My admiration to you, in the hope that you will pull through and maybe get others to be more active in the support of the sick, disabled, elderly and unemployed. We rely too much on the government to solve society problems, evading our own human duties. I hope you call is heard loud and clear.

Most viewed



Property search
Browse by area

Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter