October 4, 2011
The Danes are the first to have opened up the fat tax fridge, introducing taxation measures on processed food products that contain certain levels of saturated fats. Implied observation one: Denmark has no large food manufacturers. Our reflex to attack industry for all of society’s ills shows how limited our thinking is here, and how desperate the obesity crisis is becoming. This leads me to implied observation two: soon all Danes will be svelte!
Will a fat tax work? Of course not! Portions will become smaller, ingredient compositions will change (there is a reason Americans eat so many different types of sweeteners in single products) and food might become less natural, more engineered and more risky (nano-salts provide the same sodium taste, but …). It is calories that make people fat, not fats (although cholesterol is another issue). The fat tax is wrong, misguided, impossible to control (try to stop me at the border with my box of Oreo’s!) and fails to understand human nature (hoarding has already begun in Denmark). Look at countries with high alcohol taxes and compare it to alcoholism rates.
It will succeed in raising revenue though, and the Danes can be proud that this income will come off of the stomachs of the poor. Most lifestyle taxes (tobacco and alcohol included) hit the poor harder than the rich. Wealthy families can afford fresh vegetables and can get their maids to prepare dinners; the poor, through lack of time, money and education, rely more on processed or fast foods. In times of depression, I turn to chocolate (I can defend the science there!) and the poor tend to more frequently manage their stress with unhealthy pleasures (alcohol, tobacco and junk food). The wealthy can afford more forms of pleasure, and they are usually quick to propose measures on pleasures others may enjoy. So not only is such a tax unworkable, it is rather inequitable (dare I add: unethical).
The fat tax also blames the food industry. Industry cannot be trusted so let us make it harder for them to make money. Whether it is chemicals, pharma, fossil-based energy producers … this reflex is becoming quite tiresome. Once again, the Danes don’t really understand food. The last decade has brought enormous innovations in nutriceuticals – nutritionally fortified foods that help improve health (even for pet foods). A probiotic that lowers my cholesterol and increases my omega 3 may not be natural or organic, but that does not mean it is unhealthy. This is where the margins and money in food are and the food industry is following that route as well as providing wider choice across most food ranges. No clever government interventions can take credit for the recent increase in availability of whole grain alternatives to processed pasta and cereal brands.
The real point on where the Danes have got it wrong is that obesity is a lifestyle issue, not a food content one. Rather than a fat tax, I would like to propose a “fat-ass tax”. Except where it is hereditary or genetic, if you can’t run a 5K at 40, you have been sitting on the couch too much, have taken the car for too many unnecessary trips to the corner, have enjoyed too many buffet lunches, and have simply put, become lazy. And like smokers, as you are costing society, you should be taxed for that. There should be a BMI index fee at the hospital registration desks. I understand this is politically incorrect, but so is denying me the pleasure of a box of chocolates after a two hour run or penalising poor people for the little pleasure they may still have.
Obesity has little to do with the food you eat, but rather the calories you fail to burn. If there were more parks, more car-free city centres, more sports programmes for inner-city youths, more affordable fruit and vegetables and more nutritional advice in schools, maybe governments could make a dent in the obesity epidemic. Until then, taxing food that gives comfort to unhappy people in difficult circumstances just seems vengeful and nasty.David Zaruk