Does Britain need a fat tax? David Cameron hasn’t ruled it out. In Manchester he called for Britain to ‘wake-up’ to rising obesity levels and, with Denmark now the first country to tax foods high in saturated fat, said a fat tax ‘is something we should look at’.
But is a tax levied on fatty foods the best way to tackle obesity? Certainly, obesity costs the NHS money. In 2001, the National Audit Office conservatively estimated that the NHS would spend £3.6 billion treating obesity and related illnesses by 2010. As people get fatter, ambulance trusts are forking out £90,000 on “bariatric” ambulances with reinforced tail-lifts and inflatable lifting cushions.
Some argue that the obese should contribute towards this expenditure. Smokers pay £9.3 billion annually in cigarette taxes, drinkers pay £8.3 billion, but there is no specific levy on obesity. Sin taxes, however, are about more than raising revenue. They are a means of controlling bad behaviour. Cigarette duty raises far more than the £2.7 billion the NHS spends treating smoking-related diseases annually. Intended as polite nudges, they more often crudely shove us towards healthier lifestyles.
A fat tax along the Danish line wouldn’t just target the obese, but anyone who bought foods high in saturated fats. Butter, milk, cheese, pizza, meat and oil would be affected, and with British food prices already some of the highest in Europe, average taxpayers, struggling to buy household staples, would be penalised for eating the food they enjoy.
Sin taxes also disproportionately hit those on lower incomes – not because what they eat is more fatty, but because they spend a higher proportion of their income on food. A fat tax would be regressive, according to a 2004 report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. It would burden the poorest households seven times more, as a proportion of income, than the richest households.
Crucially, there’s little evidence a fat tax would even change behaviour. Obesity may be a growing problem, an ever heavier burden on the NHS, but indiscriminate taxation of fatty foods is not its panacea. It would not be an innovative response to an unsolved problem, but more-of-the-same intervention.
The Government must leave people to directly face the consequences of their own unhealthy actions. If someone like Paul Mason, formerly the world’s fattest man, has cost the NHS £1 million over 15 years, he should contribute towards the direct costs of his care. A fat tax would not provide this direct link between action and consequence. It would penalise the poor, increase food prices for ordinary taxpayers and stand as an unacceptable intervention into the eating habits of everyone.