Heaviest Option

'A fat tax would earn the Treasury £38 billion a year. But it would only raise that much money if it didn't work'

Lecturing at the Royal Society of Medicine, the director of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Sir Nicholas Wald, proposed in April that the UK tax four ingredients that contribute to obesity and hypertension: salt, saturated fat, alcohol, and sugar. The tax wouldn’t apply to these ingredients in their pure form, so presumably a canister of salt wouldn’t cost £100. How merciful.

The ever more popular “sin tax” allows the State to pilfer from people who have been made to feel too ashamed of themselves to complain. When George Osborne brought the price of cigarettes to between £6 and £7 for 20, with up to 88 per cent going to the Treasury, where were the columns railing at the injustice? Smokers are evil — even smokers think so — and have learned to keep their heads down.
Yet even if you believe in governmental social engineering, the sin tax is a crude tool, and a tax on unhealthy ingredients would be no exception. The UK’s skyhigh alcohol duty penalises moderate drinkers as well as yobs vomiting on the street. In kind, thin folks would get reamed by a “fat tax” right along with the porkers.

Though Wald’s proposal is aimed at takeaway and ready meals, think of the host of foods whose price would rise astronomically if taxed by the gram of salt: soy sauce, anchovies, frozen peas, dried shrimp, salt cod, smoked salmon, capers, olives, tinned soup, and bread. Sugar duties would hit ketchup, chutney, many chilli sauces, and all jams and preserves. A saturated fat tax could jack up the price of full-fat milk, Greek yogurt, cream, cheeses, coconut, macadamia nuts, cashews, most red meat, and many salad dressings and prepared sauces. As for alcohol, let’s raise some of the highest duties in Europe, just boosted further in Osborne’s last budget, again.

Fat taxes fall disproportionately on the poor. And excuse me, but didn’t I read something recently about the cost of food in the UK already going through the roof?
Meanwhile over in New York, the food fascists are having a field day. A Democratic assemblyman, Felix Ortiz, has put forward a bill to tax sweets and snacks (including granola bars and brown rice cakes). It would ban all New York restaurants from using ANY SALT WHATSOEVER (mmm, yum). It would tax sources of entertainment associated with a sedentary lifestyle: sales and rentals of video games, movies and game controllers, just as Ortiz also proposed taxing television commercials to discourage obesity in 2003. (An odd impulse. It’s during the commercials that we get up.) No exemption for people who do sit-ups in front of movies and TV programmes, thank you. 
What’s the limit? Maybe we should tax couches, lest we become potatoes on them. Perhaps furniture in general should be banned, because we’d get ever so much more exercise lumbering up from the floor. As tools of manipulation, sin taxes only work when astronomically high; having to take out a home equity loan for a packet of fags has undoubtedly discouraged smoking. But levying Wald’s penny per tenth of a gram of salt and per gram of saturated fat on a Big Mac would raise the price from £2.49 to £2.88. Is 38p a sufficient deterrent? 
The lecturer’s reasoning runs that if you make healthy food cheaper than the unhealthy kind, people will prefer the more beneficial choice. Really? This shibboleth that healthy food is more expensive than junk is a myth. I cook every night from scratch, and my homemade rosemary chicken thighs are cheaper than either a ready meal or KFC. Busy consumers buy prepared food and takeaways, not because making their own spaghetti Bolognese is too expensive, but because it’s easier. They don’t have to buy multiple ingredients, chop and sauté, or scrub any pans. Also, many an inexperienced cook can spend hours in the kitchen and produce the roundly inedible. Thanks to uniform standards, chain fast food is reliably tasty, and if it’s greasy to boot that’s why it’s tasty. Costlier junk food is still effortless, still nefariously toothsome. The ultimate hypocrisy of the sin tax is that on the one hand it’s meant to reduce oreliminate detrimental behaviour; on the other, it’s touted as a windfall. This nastyingredients tax would ostensibly earn the Treasury £38 billion per year — a full third of the NHS budget. But a fat tax would only raise that much money if it didn’t work. 
Poor diet is one of those anathemas to politicians: not subject to legislation. Even education programmes are impotent (people don’t avoid vegetables out of ignorance; they don’t want to eat vegetables). No law can impart the discipline to not eat a cupcake. Besides, bloody hell! Any tax that would target Marmite, kippers, marmalade and Christmas pudding is a tax on being British.

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