Pay As You Eat

spiked-TV: Giles Coren's Tax the Fat was more facetious than factual.

Rob Lyons

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Tax the Fat, More4, Tuesday 6 June

I firmly believe Giles Coren is a prat. I know it’s usually wrong to start off with an ad hominem attack on someone putting forward an argument, but it really is best to get the facts straight from the word go.

I have held this belief ever since I read a restaurant review of his a couple of years ago in which he declared he was never going to review the food anymore, just the ethical and environmental standards of the restaurant. Which doesn’t make you much use as a restaurant reviewer, really.

As it happens, Coren isn’t stupid. He seems to have a fairly clear sense that he is a prat. So he presents his arguments in what is often called a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ manner, but is more accurately described as facetiousness.

Coren’s argument, as presented in Tax the Fat on More4, is as follows: obesity is causing death and ill health on an enormous scale. We really ought to do something about it. Or, if we can’t do something about it, we should at least make sure that fat people pay for the privilege of being fat because it is entirely their own fault.

As Coren noted in an article for the Daily Mail a few days ago: ‘[T]he vast majority of chubbies in Britain are big because they lack the willpower or incentive to maintain a healthier lifestyle. We’re paying for their self-indulgence. And I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it’s fair. Smokers are expected to pay vast amount in tax to fund their habit. Boozer are taxed in the same way; gamblers, too.… The time has come to tax the fat.’ (1)

In the past, tax was rarely about modifying behaviour. Taxing beer and fags was always about raising more revenues. The moralistic rhetoric about health was always an excuse to hammer smokers and drinkers for more money. (And Coren is factually wrong about the gambling – in fact, betting tax was scrapped in 2001 due to tax-free online competition.) Only in recent years have there been increasing moves to tax all-and-sundry to modify our behaviour – almost every new environmental proposal seems to come with a tax attached – which indicates the degree to which government and policy wonks feel it is appropriate to interfere in our lives.

Alongside this tax on the obese, Coren believes that fat people should be stigmatised in the same way as smokers have been over the past few years. He suggests that we are too forgiving towards people who can’t control their urges. Only he then goes and contradicts himself. He notes that during filming, ‘I even wore a fat suit in public for two days to gauge other people’s reactions (never again – the stigma was unbearable)’. There wouldn’t be ‘fat acceptance’ groups springing up if everyone was congratulating the obese on their attractive shape.

Coren bridles at the idea that nothing can be done to prevent people getting fatter, and in particular at the idea that fat people are passive victims of their body morphology. In this respect, at least, I have some sympathy with him. We do have some control over our weight. We are not ‘addicted’ to fast food and we can, to a degree, alter our habits when we are motivated to do so – although how successful these changes are in the long term, and how much they really benefit our health, is open to question (see The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos).

However, Coren singularly fails to interrogate the ideas that there is an obesity timebomb, or that making people pay a bit more tax could ever resolve it. In truth, he seems more interested in the few quid he’s being asked to pay for someone else’s healthcare. Tax the Fat seems more like a narrow-minded tantrum than a serious attempt to solve a social problem.

Why, for example, does the ‘obesity timebomb’, where the people of Britain are apparently going to develop chronic illness and die early, coexist with the ‘pensions timebomb’, where the very same people are going to live so much longer that the country will inevitably be bankrupted? Does this open up the possibility that I could avoid paying some compulsory top-up pension if I promise to spend the equivalent amount stuffing my face with doner kebabs? Or am I just being facetious now?

The truth is that the health risks associated with obesity seem to have been overstated. Even the scale of the change in weight has been exaggerated, by expressing that change in terms of the number of people who have become obese (ie, have crossed a certain threshold), and illustrating every story about the subject with pictures of the morbidly obese – a small fraction of the population. As Coren says in the Daily Mail, ‘on average, Britons have put on six pounds in weight each over the past 10 years’. In other words, we’re all a little bit fatter than in the past. Hardly an epidemic.

Tax the Fat is the latest in a long line of ‘factual’ programming where some so-called expert, or controversialist, decides to tell us about their staggering insight into how we all should live. Even on the subject of food and health, we’ve had You Are What You Eat, the hugely successful vehicle for the odious Gillian McKeith; Jamie’s School Dinners, the hugely successful vehicle for the odious Jamie Oliver; then there was Honey, We’re Killing the Kids, How to Live Longer, Celebrity Fit Club, Fat Camp, The Diet Doctors and many, many more.

In fact, if there’s an epidemic going on at all, it’s an epidemic of such idiotic programming. At current rates of expansion, a huge proportion of British television schedules will be taken up with such drivel. What we need is some kind of financial incentive to encourage television companies to stop making these programmes and produce a diet of high-quality factual and entertainment shows instead.

How about Tax the Prats?

(1) Shouldn’t we tax fatties, Daily Mail, 27 May 2006

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