'Fat tax' plans dismissed as unworkable

Related tags Nutrition

The thorny issue of imposing taxes on fatty foods in a bid to
reduce levels of obesity raised its ugly head in the UK once again
this week - but was almost immediately dismissed as unworkable.

A report in The Times​ newspaper earlier this week suggested that the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit - the body which advises Tony Blair's government on potential areas for legislation - was giving serious consideration to suggesting that foods such as dairy products, pastries, chocolate, pizzas and burgers should be taxed at a higher rate than other, 'healthier' products.

With obesity levels in the UK fast approaching those of the US, where some observers are already talking of an obesity epidemic, the government is looking at ways to improve the nation's health.

In fact, Britain and Ireland are the only two EU countries which do not impose VAT on all food products (although some items, such as carbonated soft drinks and fast food are taxed at the full rate of 17.5 per cent), and the suggestion is that making 'unhealthy' food more expensive would go some way towards combating rising obesity levels.

But the government was quick to pour cold water on the suggestion, saying that while several ideas for tackling obesity were being discussed, a fat tax was not one of them - not least because such a system would be all but unworkable.

The government is certainly aware that the problem has to be tackled somehow, with the rising cost of treating obesity and other diet-related problems putting even greater strain on the already under-funded National Health Service.

The Policy Unit document set out a number of other suggestions, according to the newspaper report, including 'lifestyle lessons' in schools to warn of the dangers of an unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle or a more structured approach towards sports in schools and elsewhere, making it cheaper, easier and more fun for people to take exercise on a regular basis.

The idea of a fat tax may have been dismissed by the government, but the medical profession is certainly in favour. The British Medical Association debated the issue at its conference last year, amid claims that taxing fatty foods could help cut heart disease deaths by up to 1,000 a year.

Not surprisingly, though, the food industry itself has always vociferously opposed the suggestion. Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF​), which represents British producers, said: "A so-called 'fat tax' levied on specific food types would hit lower income families, be patronising to consumers, and would be a tax on choice. Many food products already attract VAT. A fat tax would operate like a poll tax on food penalising lower income families who spend a higher proportion of their income on food and drink."

"Consumers will rightly feel patronised by 'top-down' messages based on the idea that they can't think for themselves and need to be taxed into weight-loss. The idea that any particular food is bad for you is out of date and simplistic. A balanced diet can include snacks and treats - moderation is the key. Negative messages about unhealthy eating habits just don't work - much better to promote a positive approach to food and health.

"Information and education initiatives such as the food industry's foodfitness campaign which encourage a healthy diet and moderate physical exercise will do much more to combat obesity,"​ he said.

Related topics Policy

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