Sunday, October 23, 2011

A fat tax isn't fair and it probably won't work. But here's why I think we should have one anyway

By Jennifer O’Connell

You can learn a lot about life from fridge magnets. I recently came across one which read: “If hunger is not the problem, then eating’s not the solution.”

As slimming mantras go, it’s not bad: it’s breezy, memorable and succinct enough to laminate and stick on your fridge.

As a recipe for tackling the country’s obesity crisis, though, it has its shortcomings. Too often, you see, hunger is the problem.


Photo by x-ray delta one on Flickr

We are now in the peculiar position where many of us are simultaneously starving and obese.

According to OECD data for 2010, we have the second highest obesity rates in the whole of Europe. Twenty three per cent of the adult population are shockingly, life-threateningly fat.

A further one in three of us are merely too damn fat. And it’s not just the adults: 327,000 Irish children, too, are either obese or overweight right now. Another 10,000 will be overweight by next year.

In fact, give it another two decades and one in two of us will be obese: not just too fat, but actually clinically obese.

The problem, clearly, is not that we’re dying of a lack of food. It’s that the kind of food we are choosing to eat is killing us.

By leading sedentary lifestyles and consuming diets that are high in sugar and saturated fats, and low in things like protein and vitamins, we are depriving ourselves of the nutrients that we need to survive, and ward off things like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

And all the while, we’re getting fatter.

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Think it sounds too melodramatic to be true? Just look at countries like Papua New Guinea, Samoa and South Africa where childhood malnutrition and obesity now go hand in hand.

The trouble is that filling up on the empty calories in fizzy drinks and cheap meals of burgers and chips causes your blood sugars to spike, and then crash. An hour later, you’re hungry again, and craving more sugar, so you reach for a doughnut. And so the cycle continues.

Denmark, which has an adult obesity rate of just 11.4 per cent, has come up with one way of tackling what it intends to ensure doesn’t become a significant problem.

As of this month, all foods with a saturated fat content of 2.3 per cent or higher will be subject to an additional tax – so, for example, a small pack of butter now costs an extra 30 cent.

Last month, Hungary introduced new taxes on fatty foods, sugar, alcohol and foods with high levels of caffeine.

Critics say it’ll never work. They point out that it unfairly targets the poor; that it smacks of nanny-statism; that there’s no proof behaviour-modifying taxes are effective. They insist that the picture of sedentary guzzlers burdening the state with their massive health bills is appealingly simple – but it’s also misleading. They’re absolutely right, of course.

But I’m still in favour of a fat tax. And a sugar tax too – which has already been introduced in France as a way of targeting fizzy drinks, and is something currently being considered by the government. Oh, and clearer labelling and better education about food and nutrition.

However, you’ve got to start somewhere, and a fat tax is as good a place as any.

I’m no economist, but it seems to me that the principle of a well thought-out taxation system is one which taxes less of the things we want more of - like jobs and the big multinationals that create them - and more of the things we want less of - like tobacco, alcohol, petrol and unhealthy foods.

One of the most compelling arguments against a fat tax is that it’s not fair, in that it punishes those on lower incomes who can’t afford to eat well.

It is certainly true that nutritious foods are more expensive.

A quick survey of the aisles at my local supermarket reveals that a six pack of Jazz apples costs €3.29, while two five packs of chocolate filled doughnuts are on special offer at €1.50.

A 454g pack of four frozen quarter pounders? €3.89. Or you can make your own using a 400g pack of premium mince – which costs €4.

Need something cheap for the family dinner? A packet of stir-fry vegetables is €2.40 – but you can have a twin pack of four cheese pizzas for €1.44. Likewise, a two litre bottle of fizzy orange is €2.19, while a two litre carton of real, not-from-concentrate orange juice is €4.59.

But it strikes me that there’s a fairly simple solution to this. Any additional tax revenue generated through a fat or sugar tax must be used to offer incentives to producers to reduce the price of fruit, vegetables, eggs and fresh fish.

The other thing I like about the ‘fat tax’ is the way it sounds.

We’ve become far too coy about the way we talk about this problem, as though the mere mention of the word ‘fat’ stigmatises the overweight, or those in lower economic groups; contributes to childhood anorexia rates, or piles more body-related tyranny onto all women. All of which is very laudable.

But by avoiding calling it what it is, we’re also detracting from the personal responsibility element. ‘Obesity’ sounds like a medical condition, while ‘fat’ sounds like what it is – a lifestyle choice.

The truth is that while there may be higher rates of obesity amongst people on lower incomes, being thin is not a rich person’s prerogative. If you want to lose weight, it’s not easy – but nor is it terribly complicated. It doesn’t cost anything at all. You simply consume less and exercise more.

So let’s stop treating this as a class issue, when it’s a problem that will soon affect half the adult population.

We are fat because of the way we live. It’s an issue so closely bound up in every aspect of our lives that no single solution is going to provide the magic bullet. But a fat tax would be a step in the right direction.

This column first appeared in the Irish Independent Weekend magazine on Saturday October 22, 2011

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