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Should the UK implement a fat tax?

Published : Tuesday December 27, 2011 | Posted in : General Health
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The festive season has long been associated with indulgence in terms of food and drink, but this is usually shrugged off as simply being part and parcel of this time of year. This year, however, Christmas was prefaced by not one but two “recommendations” from experts in a bid to lower obesity rates in the UK. While the National Obesity Forum and the International Chair on Cardiometabolic Risk released the results of a poll in order to support their suggestion that people “tell their loved ones they are overweight this Christmas”, the British Journal of Nutrition (BJN) was slightly more subtle, choosing not to reference Christmas directly, though the timing of the release of their results suggested the link was not far from their minds.

The past year has been full of studies, reports and research into obesity, with the word seemingly never far from the headlines. A myriad of suggestions have been made in the hope of halting the worrying trend of the increasing rate of obesity, which places a huge financial burden on the health service, not just in the UK but across the developed world. So are these two new reports, released just four days before Christmas, any different? The statement from the National Obesity Forum and the International Chair of Cardiometabolic Risk seems to be little more than at attempt to jump on the Christmas bandwagon by shoehorning the word “Christmas” into a poll which could have been made and released at any time of year. All the results show is that many people find it difficult to tell those closest to them that they are overweight - which is hardly a shock - and though it may make a good headline, it seems very unlikely that anyone would take seriously the suggestion that they should choose Christmastime to break the news.

The report from the BJN is more significant, however, as it is the result of a study of a 23 year period in order to analyse the trends in drink consumption. It was co-authored by four experts, one of which is Professor Susan Jebb, who is the main adviser to the government on obesity and has been for four years. The research suggests that imposing a form of tax on soft drinks that contain a lot of sugar would help to curb the rising tide of obesity, as their estimates suggest that a 10% price increase would lead to a 7.5ml consumption decrease of the beverages per capita per day. The suggestion has been supported by the Royal College of Physicians, quoted in the Guardian, who said they support “legislative measures to tackle...obesity, where there is substantial evidence to support it”.

This move towards a focus on legislative measures is in contrast to the approach championed by health secretary Andrew Lansley in the past, when he appeared to reject the idea of a “fat tax” in favour of “nudging” the public towards a more healthy lifestyle. But how feasible is the idea of a fat tax, really? And how successful would it be? Earlier this year, Denmark introduced an extra tax on foods with a high saturated fat content, and similar taxes are in place or are planned on certain unhealthy food products in France, Finland and Hungary. Dr Mike Rayner, also quoted in the Guardian, supported the findings of the research, saying that “fiscal measures are an underused mechanism”. He went on to suggest that an independent review should be commissioned in order for recommendations to be made regarding how such taxation would work in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, the research has been met by something approaching outraged horror from the soft drinks industry itself, who said in a statement that a tax on soft drinks would be “ineffective, intrusive and unfair”. Critics have also questioned how effective such a tax could be, bearing in mind the fact that people are already willing to pay significantly more for branded Coca-cola than generic cola. Would a 10% increase put anyone off? It is also difficult to see how placing a tax solely on soft drink instead of on a range of unhealthy beverages or food products could have much of an impact.

Clearly, introducing legislative measures in an attempt to lower obesity rates would not hurt, and it could be a step in the right direction. But tax alone will not be enough. Surely, bearing all the above in mind, it would also be sensible to make healthy options more affordable instead of making unhealthy options slightly more expensive. It seems a little naive to assume that anyone would choose a healthy alternative simply because the cost of their usual option has increased by a few pence.

It is likely that 2012 will bring its own multitude of new research about obesity, with new suggestions on how to shrink rapidly expanding waistlines. But is it that difficult, really? A multi-pronged approach is what is needed, including education and awareness schemes as well as legislative measures, in order to make healthy options more palatable, more accessible and, crucially, more affordable, while making unhealthy options less alluring. It may not be as simple as the introduction of a tax, and it won’t make such punchy headlines, but it is the only option that offers us a feasible, long-term solution to the problem of obesity.

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