The tabloids are fond of typically awkward, insensitive pieces timed to stir up emotion even in those who might otherwise resist politics wherever possible. This one seems a good starting point for a discussion about a tax or ban on unhealthy foods. Again, I include lots of links for your added entertainment.
“It’s not me who has to change my attitude or size, it’s everyone else,” insists young lady from London who has never worked, maintains that “fatism” is to blame for her continued unemployment (not her, neither is she to blame for her girth), and naïvely suggests free gastric band surgery to help increase overweight jobseekers’ chances of finding jobs. Because we all know there’s plenty of money to throw around and it’s not as though cancer patients are being told that the drugs they need to stay alive are quite simply too expensive. Free gastric band surgery! What next, free Botox? Perhaps not surprisingly, the young dreamer opposes a tax on sugary drinks, which has been in the news quite a lot lately and not only in the UK, mooted as a means of reducing the cost of treating obesity-related health conditions, which could rise as high as £45 billion in the UK by 2050. Just what we need, another bill we can’t pay. Great.
President Obama brought up the idea of a tax on soft drinks in 2009. At the last count, some 30-odd US states had adopted or mostly just contemplated such a thing. A penny-an-ounce tax was proposed, but not passed, in California in 2011; a tax on soda, bottled water (!), candy and gum in Washington state was quickly repealed by voters in 2010; and last year Hawaii, too, failed in its attempt to levy a soda tax. However, in New York, a ban on the sale of large-size sugary drinks is set to take effect this month. 60 per cent of New Yorkers oppose the ban.
Since 2011, France has had a tax on drinks containing added sugar or artificial sweeteners; Norway a tax on sugar and chocolate; and Finland a tax on products loaded with sugar, such as soft drinks and ice cream (Finns are also considering a tax on saturated fat). Hungary, though, has really taken the biscuit – in more ways than one – with a tax on foods high in fat, salt, sugar, caffeine and carbohydrates, initially labelled a “hamburger tax” even though it has never applied to hamburgers. Hmm.
The idea behind all this, of course, is that by increasing the price, people will be discouraged from consuming as much of what clearly ails us. It’s not a new theory: the World Health Organization suggested taxing foods high in fat, sugar and salt in 2003. In 2010, there were calls to ban trans-fats from all foods in the UK, but these were soon dismissed. At the same time, a similar initiative failed in Romania.
Denmark, which banned the use of trans-fats in 2004 and has had a tax on chocolate and candy since 1922, introduced the world’s very first so-called ‘fat tax’ in October 2011, subjecting foods containing more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat – such as butter, milk, cheese, meat and processed food – to a surcharge. It was scrapped barely a year later, because it had inflated food prices and put Danish jobs at risk; Danes were crossing the borders into Germany and Sweden to stock up on food there.
As mentioned in the previous post, the total number of people in Britain claiming to be too fat to work has doubled in three years and last year cost the British taxpayer more than £28 million. Nearly half of Britons are expected to be seriously overweight by 2050. Alarmingly, last year it was revealed that 53 per cent of British police officers are overweight (one in 100 morbidly obese) with approximately 3,500 across England and Wales on back office duties because of health problems. They will have to pass annual fitness tests or their pay will be docked from this September.
Accepting the dissatisfaction with the standard measurement used to denote obesity, the Body Mass Index, a controversial calculation based on a person’s height-to-weight ratio (which would classify the muscle-bound as obese because muscle obviously weighs more than fat) and thus remaining suspicious of the figures, something still has to be done.
Lord knows we’ve had all sorts of initiatives to help us be more health-conscious. Better labelling featuring the idiot-proof, you would hope, familiarity of traffic lights has been in place for many years; sales of Kellogg’s Frosties, for example, a breakfast cereal which consists of an incredible 37 per cent sugar, have fallen in the UK by 18.3 per cent since a ban on advertising high-sugar foods during children’s television programmes in 2007; cigarettes are now kept in cupboards out of view after more than a decade of packets being adorned with gruesome photos of swelling tumours and the stark reminder that SMOKING KILLS. Most people are perfectly capable of making informed choices yet they simply aren’t taking heed of the warnings. More fool them, you might say, but we will all have to pay the price for their apathy one way or another.
So what do we do, let them carry on?
Oh how we shook our heads when lawsuits were filed against the fast food industry for making people fat. It turned out that Ronald McDonald wasn’t force-feeding anyone (I liked to imagine that he was); people were just eating his burgers and the Colonel’s fried chicken, then washing it down with cola and milkshake, far too often because they were too lazy or inept to cook for themselves. For their added convenience they didn’t even have to travel far to find food that comes without the chore of plates and cutlery because those golden arches and other recognisable havens of salt and sugar are to be found everywhere these days. This shocked nobody, but still people thought they should be able to sue, others pushed a mountain of greasy wrappers aside brazenly to applaud them, and the fast food retailers made some token changes to keep everyone happy and, most importantly, eating their meals in ever greater quantities.
We can partly blame the fast food outlets, responsible also for such degradation, waste and litter, along with the supermarkets for urging people to buy more than they need. These ought to do away with the bulk buys that encourage overconsumption and waste in equal measure and start selling all the misshapen fruit and vegetables at a discounted rate instead of destroying it in pursuit of visual perfection (although shrink-wrapped is not visually appealing to me, I don’t know about you). We can blame the traditional corner shop just as much for charging far too much (for everything) and preferring to stock microwave dinners. In their defence, though, they sell what people want to buy: what is profitable, what keeps them in business while others around them succumb to the relentless spread of the supermarket. Convenience stores stock convenience food.
We can blame low wages and high prices and bewail, ‘What are the poor to eat?’ It costs more to buy healthy food, more preparation is involved in cooking nutritious, balanced meals using fresh ingredients, and working people don’t always have the time. I accept this. Is there opportunity to send the children off to school on bellies full of hot porridge oats, fruit and nuts, and with a lunch box lovingly prepared if both Mum and Dad – assuming the children have the luxury of both Mum and Dad – are rushing to get to work themselves? In a middle class world of farmers’ markets and organic everything, with a stay-at-home parent or perhaps even a nanny, I should expect so (although it turns out that middle class kids are actually more likely to be obese, thank you vile Conservative MP Anna Soubry, so do spare us your patronising faux concern for the poor as your wicked government makes them infinitely poorer, because it’s enough to make me want to regurgitate my reasonably healthy dinner). Yet too few inhabit such a comfortable world and are never likely to.
I’m always sympathetic to claims of further demonisation of the poor, and accept the link between obesity in developed countries and deprivation, but I’m not completely convinced that it costs all that much more to eat a healthy diet. I don’t think eating at McDonald’s several times a week is particularly affordable, I think lack of time and imagination, as much as money, is largely responsible for poor diet. There are lazy parents who themselves had lazy parents, the sort who feel that peeling off a plastic lid and putting a plastic tray in a microwave oven constitutes ‘cooking’ and get terribly defensive about their long working hours and low wages when it’s pointed out to them that allowing their children to watch TV and play video games endlessly isn’t a substitute for fresh air and exercise, which costs less, sometimes even nothing at all. Yet I still remain sympathetic, writing as someone who works from home without children to care for yet still frequently finds that, no matter what, sometimes there simply aren’t enough hours in the day so keeping a supply of frozen pizzas to hand just in case is a good idea.
Of course, it would be great if leisure centres were available and affordable to everyone, if parks were safe and clean, if school sports fields hadn’t been sold off to property developers to make a quick buck, if community centres and youth clubs could afford to stay open into the night, and so on and so on. Oh yes, and if hospitals weren’t so short of money that they didn’t need to rent their space to Burger King. Is there anything more absurd than this? Considering the appalling state of hospital food, what an inappropriate welcome relief this must be for patients, yet talk about a vicious cycle and hypocrisy of the highest order.
(Bulgarians and Romanians, if you’re still reading and considering a new life in Britain, I told you last time that this country’s a mess. I wasn’t joking.)
But let us also blame, for example, overly fussy and terribly indulgent cookery programmes on television featuring demonstrations by predominantly white, wealthy presenters using ingredients that many will never have heard of, let alone experimented with. Many of these should stop immediately and be replaced with something genuinely useful and educational. Teaching children in schools how to cook (and budget) would be equally useful as knowing about the world’s religions and much more so than spending such a disproportionate chunk of the timetable on Shakespeare or Pythagoras, as wonderful as these two undoubtedly were. At the same time, teaching a generation about composting and growing their own fruit and vegetables would be globally beneficial, but that’s another matter and I’m trying not to go off on a tangent for a change.
So a tax is the only option left? I’m not convinced that it is.
I tire of people pleading ignorance and constantly looking to blame others for their miserable circumstances. We know that too much junk food is harmful, just as we’ve known for years of the dangers of smoking. It cannot be made any clearer. Shouldn’t we stop tip-toeing around these obstinate fools and instead give them a bill for their medical care? As the argument goes, if people want to eat nothing but junk, they should be free to do so, but perhaps on the condition that they pick up the tab when they become ill.
This isn’t a case for further privatisation of the NHS. On the contrary. But after several years of watching various sections of society suffer because the state no longer considers them worthy of its support, because the state, we are told, is flat broke, I find it increasingly difficult to sympathise with those complaining of an assortment of frankly self-inflicted ailments which includes those caused by eating too much junk. Free gastric band surgery indeed…
One of my favourite Daily Mail headlines, in all its blunt nastiness, is this one: ‘Fat benefits claimants told to go to the gym or face having have handouts taken away by local councils’. The idea is that doctors prescribe exercise rather than medication, smart cards are issued and will record the number of visits to the gym, swimming pool, etc. (positively Orwellian, it’s true), and anyone in receipt of benefits gets penalised if they do not attend and rewarded if they do. Rewarded with what, celery and a range of dips? (More on this idea of rewarding later.)
Now isn’t that annoying, if you’ve neither the spare time or cash to attend a yoga class, however much you might like or need to? Benefits cut willy-nilly to the most vulnerable and needy, yet there’s somehow money in the pot to send the fattest to the leisure centre free of charge. That won’t cause resentment among the poor, oh no. Good one, Tories.
Whatever next? A fixed number of times anyone is allowed to call the emergency services before they get blacklisted for being a nuisance? Overweight nurses sacked for setting a bad example? Spy cameras in bakeries, possibly in the cakes themselves?
What this comes down to yet again is a choice between the carrot or the stick. Britain, so sure that financial incentives are the best way to change people, has in the past paid pregnant mothers grocery vouchers as a bribe to stop them from smoking. Really, it happened and I couldn’t keep you waiting any longer before I spat out my disgust and with it my tea. (Two sugars, if you’re wondering, and I know that’s not doing me any good, you don’t need to tell me.) Yet suggestions of benefits being issued in vouchers, so that they cannot be squandered on cigarettes and scratch cards (or wine and an extra trip to the south of France, probably, in the case of middle class parents who, until recently, received child benefit) provoke outrage.
While I can’t say whether or not over-eating has comparable effects on, in this case, the unborn child (although others more qualified can and do, for example Kaiser Permanente) or indeed the wider household (passive smoking) and the even wider community (burglary, muggings) as do addictions to cigarettes, drugs or alcohol, I fail to grasp how continual financial prizes will help people take responsibility for themselves.
There are too many people taking advantage of a weak-willed system, secure in the knowledge that they face no repercussions for persistent transgressions; from those patients abusing the ambulance service with feigned chest pains in order to be transferred promptly from A to B, from motorists parking in spaces designated for those with children or the disabled, from those letting their dogs foul wherever they happen to squat and not bothering to clean up after them. Instead of catching all these people in the act and shaming them, or if need be, fining them, so that next time they might think twice before committing the same offence, it’s somehow a better idea to simply ban dogs from entire areas, to create more specialised parking bays, to pay agency staff at great cost to help meet targets (which they still don’t meet). None of this solves the problem of people doing wrong and getting away with it in the first place.
Enough money has been spent already on initiatives to help people stop smoking. What does methadone cost these days? And what if you’re not in receipt of benefits, smoke like a chimney, eat like a horse (maybe even eat horse, which is increasingly likely), yet rely on the NHS because you’re not rich enough to have private healthcare? Is that OK, to be uncomfortably overweight, increasingly short of breath with dodgy knees, just because you’re not in receipt of state benefits? Or would these people also be subjected to smart card shame?
I’m surprised that some ‘think-tank’ or another hasn’t already come up with the following: We measure the carbon footprint of each household in a quest to meet reduced emissions targets, which is very admirable, so let’s start measuring real footprints, and those that sink deepest into the ground can pay that little bit more through taxation to cover the extra care they might at some point need. It would require an agency, likely made up of self-important incompetents, to badger people, forcing them onto scales at regular intervals; a national database to record everybody’s weight (just think of the controversy when those details are sold, as they always are, to companies who would target the heaviest with relentless sales patter for everything ranging from steel-enforced leather recliners to ab-crunching fitness aids). It could result in a department whose job it is to scold those who are underweight and establish whether they are guilty of some kind of benefit fraud or actually have a genuine eating disorder. This would, of course, require pages and pages of forms to be filled, an incorrect assessment and costly appeal, and you’d just have to hope that the person would still be alive by the time treatment was eventually arranged. It would create jobs, inspire TV reality shows, and make us all neurotic. Again, just what we need.
Ignoring the perfectly valid yet nonetheless depressing point, that life’s often miserable realities leave many of us with a need for something to deaden the ever-present ache, be it occasional excess or unfettered abuse of some substance or another, I’m still finding that my nose has been put out of joint here. I’m waiting for my council to notice that I recycle considerably more, and therefore put out less rubbish destined for landfill than my neighbours and reward me for giving a damn and making an effort. It could be a simple Thank You card from the mayor or, better still, a couple of quid off the bill. I’m wondering when my garage will see that my car doesn’t do a lot of mileage and reward me for doing my small bit. I’d happily take a free tyre or two, which I obviously won’t be needing for ages anyway, but a couple of quid off the bill would be just super.
For those who try to do the right thing, be it though regularly saving, using public transport, collecting rainwater, volunteering in the community, supporting local businesses, choosing not to drink or fly or gamble or whatever, how bloody annoying that here’s another group – the overweight – that will cost you money. Maybe instead we should reward all those who put more into both state and society than they take out, and in doing so inspire and incentivise others to follow their example. There’s that carrot and stick again.
If there is a tax on unhealthy food and drink, another means of widening the already gaping chasm between rich and poor, will its proceeds support health care costs, as in Hungary, or subsidise cheaper fruit and vegetables, as in Norway? And who should pay it, the customer or the manufacturer, whose lazy processing techniques rely too heavily on salt, sugar and fat? Will money be spent on yet more expensive and mostly ineffectual advertising to encourage people to exercise? I expect it would merely serve as another means of swelling government coffers, supposedly plugging the deficit but most likely funding further tax cuts to rich cronies at the expense of the poor.
Implementing such a tax would mean penalising lower income families who spend a higher proportion of their income on food and drink: the poorest two per cent would lose about 0.7 per cent of their income, whilst the richest would pay less than 0.1 per cent of theirs. But since when has that mattered? The same is true for VAT.
I’m not at all convinced that the rich would want to extend the lives of the poor, anyway. It’s cheaper if they die young, before they can draw a pension.
So here’s a crazy suggestion: why not just make the healthy food cheaper, particularly the home-grown and in-season healthy food, and let people decide for themselves what they want to eat. And if they don’t make the sensible choice, after fair warning and more tabloid stories designed to harden us all to what a cold, mean bitch Nanny State can be, make them pay, at least in part, for their self-inflicted health woes. The same for every stumbling, mumbling inebriated wreck on a Friday night found sobering up in our under-staffed hospital waiting areas, covered in blood, glass and vomit, expecting compassion that is denied others more deserving. I certainly don’t want to have to pay any more for life’s increasingly scarce luxuries because others have no self-discipline and are at risk of gorging themselves to the point that they need to be winched out of their homes (at great public expense).
I vote for the stick rather than the carrot on this occasion, which is unfortunate when you think that more vegetables should be precisely what we need. There have been too many metaphorical carrots dangled under people’s noses already and they don’t seem to have helped matters. A few hard thwacks of the stick, coupled with the removal of the previously ever-present safety net that has only encouraged much insincerity, might make the feckless take responsibility for their actions for once and for all.
Do let me know what you think – and have a good weekend.