A ‘fat tax’? Get stuffed

Rob Lyons gives a big fat finger to those who would add taxes to junk food in order to save the masses from themselves.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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Britain is in the midst of an epidemic of chronic ill-health and obesity. Something Must Be Done. Already, the school canteen has been the battleground for Jamie’s jihad on junk. Everything on the supermarket shelf must be labelled for calories, fat, salt and sugar so we can make ‘informed choices’. (And heaven help us if we make the wrong choices, because the National Health Service won’t.) And now the idea of making the ‘wrong’ foods more expensive – the so-called ‘fat tax’ – has been revived as a way of saving us from ourselves.

And yet, critics of the fat tax have generally failed to make the most important point about this latest wheeze: regardless of whether a ‘fat tax’ would have the desired effect of making some people eat healthier, we simply should not allow the government to micro-manage our lives in this way. We should tell the food- and fat-obsessed authorities to get stuffed.

Researchers from Oxford and Nottingham, writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, looked into the possible effect of applying value added tax (VAT) to some items of food that are currently not subject to this tax (1). Using an economic model (actually an Excel spreadsheet), the researchers tested the effect of adding VAT to the main sources of saturated fat in our diets, like whole milk, butter, cakes and pastries, and cheese. They then went further and applied a scale of how ‘unhealthy’ a range of foods were, experimenting with their data to find out what would be the best way of applying the tax to decrease cholesterol levels and lower salt and sugar intake amongst the population. Based on various studies into cardiovascular disease in the past, they have concluded that an optimum application of VAT on fatty foodstuffs could avert ‘up to 3,200 cardiovascular deaths’ per year.

Their idea may have provided some food for thought – or fodder for phone-in shows at least – but the results of the report were not nearly as impressive as the news stories suggested. The researchers estimated that the total reduction in deaths from cardiovascular disease would be 1.7 per cent. Or, as the researchers themselves put it in their conclusions: ‘The potential changes in nutrition that would result from an extension of VAT to further categories of food would be modest.’

So modest, in fact, that the only sensible conclusion is not to bother with such a tax at all. The only reason that the researchers’ work generated such dramatic headline figures is that a large number of people die from cardiovascular disease in the UK. If you multiply this death toll by the tiny percentage the researchers found, you get quite an impressively high number of lives allegedly ‘saved’ by the tax. The problem is that in terms of any individual‘s risk from disease or ill-health, a ‘fat tax’ will make as much difference as urinating in the ocean.

Actually, it’s worse than that. The researchers treat the results of epidemiological studies as if they produced accurate measurements of the effect of a risk factor. However, correlation does not equal causation. There are so many confounding factors and built-in inaccuracies in such studies that to treat the figures produced as anything more than very rough estimates is totally inappropriate. Even a broad conclusion that X causes Y should only be drawn if the correlation is strong, consistent and biologically plausible (see An epidemic of epidemiology, by Rob Lyons).

The trouble is that when there have been big studies on the effect of changing diets, the results have been extremely disappointing. To give a recent example: in February 2006, a massive American study found that those put on a low-fat diet had the same death rates as those who ate what they pleased. As the lead researcher, Barbara V Howard, told the New York Times: ‘We are not going to reverse any of the chronic diseases in this country by changing the composition of the diet.’ (2)

The authors of the ‘fat tax’ report also make assumptions about how people might react to such a tax. They don’t believe that everyone will start eating salad and oily fish every day just because their usual fare is slightly more expensive. But they do believe that some people will change their behaviour a bit, enough to have an effect on disease rates. But what if they overestimate people’s sensitivity to such things? Perhaps people will react in unexpected ways: there’s evidence that many people react to such taxes by cutting down on ‘healthy’ food rather than junk, in order to balance their budgets. The results of a simple model of economic behaviour and the behaviour of people in the real world are two very different things.

So, it is far from clear that a ‘fat tax’ would work at all (3). But is it even legitimate to try to tinker with our food choices in this way? Many people point to the apparently similar case of applying swingeing taxes to cigarettes and alcohol. Yet, ‘health’ is often the spurious justification for taxes which are really more about balancing government budgets than improving the nation’s health. And if such taxes really did work, surely we would all be non-smoking teetotallers by now?

Efficacy aside, should we really allow the government to determine, through fiscal nudges and prods, how we choose to conduct our private lives? Who are they to tell us whether we should eat broccoli or burgers, chickpeas or cheddar cheese? It’s one thing for your parents to nag you as a child to eat your greens; it’s quite another for the health authorities to nag us when we’ve reached adulthood, and in the process to infantilise us all. Maybe campaigners for liberty should recognise that defending freedom in the twenty-first century will involve standing up for the freedom to choose what passes our lips as well as traditional issues like free speech.

A more active defence of our personal autonomy is a pre-requisite for maintaining a healthy body politic. Instead of a fat tax, the best thing would be to give the meddling health fanatics a big fat finger.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

(Thanks to John Luik for some useful comments on this subject.)

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons described Giles Coren’s documentary, Tax the Fat as facetious, interviewed the co-author of Diet Nation who said that the obesity scare is overblown and suggested that it wasn’t parents who were ‘tossers’ but Jamie Oliver. Jennie Bristow argued that food labelling risked poisoning our relationship with food. Stephen Bowler asked why we were so obsessed with health and death. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.

(1) ‘Could targeted food taxes improve health?’, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2007, 61, 689-694

(2) Study Finds Low-Fat Diet Won’t Stop Cancer or Heart Disease, New York Times, 7 February 2006

(3) For a fuller discussion of the ‘fat tax’ study, see Can fat taxes prevent heart disease?, Junkfood Science, 14 July 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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