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: body, coca cola, fat tax, Food and Ethics Council, health, healthy eating, mcdonald's, obesity, olympics, Oswald Mosley, sugar
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter