Sunday, October 09, 2011

Axe the fat tax

The idea of an extra tax on high-fat foods has been in the news lately, since David Cameron suggested that the idea was worth looking at. Now I've argued before against activism through the tax system. I think most of the time it creates too much administration cost and avenues for avoidance for any good that it does. And I am skeptical of the psychological value of small incentives to do the right thing, which it turns out can often be counterproductive.

In this case the fat tax is intended to tackle the "epidemic" of obesity. But it is not a tax on fat people, but on selected foods deemed to contribute to obesity. Why? I'm pretty sure that it is possible for a thin person to eat doughnuts, and for an obese frame to be maintained with sufficient quantities of muesli and semi skimmed milk. More specifically the argument is precisely that fattening foods are a problem, because it is a problem that people are fat. So a tax on fat people would surely be much more to the point. Yes, there are practical difficulties with a tax on fat people. All that weighing. But let's park that for now and just consider the principle.

The problem is that a tax on fat people would be grossly unfair, offensive and discriminatory. Thus the attempt to levy an extra tax on fat people by proxy, in the hope that we thereby don't notice that the policy is grossly unfair, offensive and discriminatory.

I've had some feedback on this argument from @IanEiloart, @beccaet and @MsNoeticat, which I will address here without attributing particular views to any one person. Thanks for your comments, by the way.

First is the question of whether a fat tax would produce a social benefit by incentivising food manufacturers to change their recipes in a lower fat direction, i.e. to make their regular products more like "diet" products. You know diet coke, diet yoghurt, diet ready meals. All the bulk of the regular product with little of the flavour. There's a reason I don't buy diet products: they are horrid. Making food in general more horrid is not something I would count as a social benefit. Just as starving sailors lost at sea would fill their bellies with sawdust to quell the hunger pangs, the modern body-image conscious person is supposed to fill their belly with a modern food-sciencey equivalent such as cellulose (which may be made from sawdust in fact).

Second is the point that pushing diets in the right direction will benefit everybody. Will it really? Will it benefit people who are underweight? How many borderline anorexics will be pushed over the borderline because they are eating food with more cellulose and less food in it? The problem here is that we are looking at the average person - who may be overweight - and imposing a food policy for everybody, as if everybody was the same as that average person. Many people eat too little fat or too little cholesterol, or too little proper food of any kind. Should they be sacrificed on the altar of the average? Top down, one-size-fits-all policies fit very few.

Finally the suggestion that revenue from a fat tax could be help people who are struggling with weight issues. This is true. And it is fair to say that weight is a very big problem for some people, causing a great deal of distress and poor health outcomes. I do think a fat tax would have to be very high indeed in order to help everybody in this kind of need, which raises the question of why isn't this kind of health support more of a priority anyway? Why should it rely on a hypothecated tax? We don't hypothecate tobacco and alcohol taxes to particular health interventions, and nor should we.

And I would say that a large part of the distress surrounding weight issues is a result of social pressures to conform to a perceived weight ideal. Now what is the fat tax, but another kind of pressure to conform to that same perceived ideal? On the one hand we are campaigning against unrealistic body images in the media; do we really want to turn round and try to impose unrealistic bodies on people through the tax system?

Update: see also freakonomics.


Tony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony said...

A reasonable thought experiment would be to replace 'fat tax' with 'alcohol duty' and change the negative effects over and see how it reads.

Joe Otten said...

Perhaps, Tony. Or minimum alcohol pricing.

I think there is a difference in that alcohol is rarely an incidental ingredient in a product (well except bread I suppose), rather the product is there as a means to deliver alcohol into the body.

Does alcohol duty encourage drinks companies to make lower alcohol products? Perhaps, a little, but not enough to make a difference.

At least wine can be as nice as vodka (but not a good scotch whisky). Low fat spread is uniformly inferior to butter.

I think a particular problem with both the fat tax and minimum alcohol pricing is that it seems to reflect the view that "the poor" are making the wrong choices and need to be coerced, but the better off are entitled to make those same choices.

Unknown said...

Actually, I think you've misunderstood the science behind all this. I'm not sure what's being considered here, and I don't suppose Cameron does either. However, what's happened in Denmark bears no relationship to your analysis.

In 2003, Denmark dealt with the worst fat problem - trans fats - by virtually banning them. Trans fat content has reduced by about 20 times, in the worst foods. Ischemic heart disease has halved as a result. This has happened with zero impact on calories consumed, and zero impact on flavour.

Just recently, they've introduced a tax on foods with a certain proportion of saturated fats. The threshold, btw is 2.3%, which just avoids taxing full fat milk. So, it's not a fat tax at all, it's a saturates tax. Again, it's likely that manufacturers will be able to adjust recipes to avoid the tax, without changing the taste of their foods.

And this isn't a tax on obesity (Denmark fares well there), or even on calories. It's about tackling Denmark's relatively low life expectancy (for a European nation). All that can be done because saturated fats cause harm disproportionate to their calorie content.

Oh, and on the question of flavour: I started drinking diet drinks a few years ago, as part of a reasonably successful attempt to lose weight. I didn't like the flavour at first, but acquired the taste, and it's not a problem any longer. Also, new recipes mean that low calorie diet drinks probably are more palatable now. Of course, this has nothing to do with fat, because there's no fat in any fizzy drinks.

A couple of other points worth noting: Denmark has also increased tax on sugary drinks, but reduced tax on diet drinks. And, these taxes might be regarded as merely reversing the harmful effects of EU agricultural subsidies which serve to artificially suppress food prices across the board.

We already have variable food taxation in the UK, with a very confusing VAT regime. It seems to me that it would be better to have a regime with a science backed health objective than the arbitrary one we already have.

Joe Otten said...

Fair enough Ian.

Though flapjack made with vegetable oil rather than butter is just nasty.

I wouldn't mind banning trans fats which after all have no nutritional or culinary merit. And like you say this is the big win healthwise. Or at least slap big labels on each product with them "This contains trans fats and therefore is shit." or words to that effect.

Saturated fats on the other hand. Meh.

cim said...

Agreed. A major underlying problem is that the science behind the "obesity" epidemic is almost universally rubbish.
- assumes that BMI is a useful measure for individuals
- assumes that there are major step changes in risk every 5 BMI points
- assumes correlation equals causation without much evidence
- assumes all human bodies are idealised "bunsen burners" when processing food

All of this is provably - and in most cases self-evidently - false, but it nevertheless forms the basis of most scientific investigation and government policy.

It's basically become a moral panic: fat people are evil.

Tim Otten said...

I think in the long run it would be far better to address the issues why people over-eat or consume junk foods in the first place. Yes it’s no tall order it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. But a blanket tax is punishes everyone which is disproportionate.
@ Ian, died drinks are no walk in the park. They contain artificial sweeteners which there are still many questions about. I much prefer something with natural sugars in it; fruit juice!

Alix said...

*comes in late*

The main problem with the thankfully axed fat tax proposal, as I saw it, is that it was subject to dieting fashion. No-one has a good word to say about trans fats, certainly, but saturated fat was merely the particular demon of the late 1980s/1990s. Arguably we are where we are now with the obesity crisis because an entire generation of people David Cameron's age have got it into their heads that they can eat/drink all the filler-stuffed "diet" crap they want as long as they also use "low-fat spread" on their toast. They can't. It comes back to the terribly boring "everything in moderation" thing. It's not okay to drink diet coke and eat two rounds of white bread every day any more than it's ok to have a mound of bacon for breakfast every day. Who knew? Of course, the new demon is carbohydrates and inevitably some people take that too far as well.

For this reason, I find it very difficult to concede a role for government in taxing anything less obviously and universally bad than cigarettes.

Joe Otten said...

Thanks Alix. There is an important point here - that even today's dietary advice, which we (at least I) think is probably largely correct, for most people, is not based on controlled trials of diet, but merely on observations. This is not really good enough for 'evidence based' dietary advice. We wouldn't approve a drug on the basis of merely observing its effects in the wild - because we would approve many ineffective drugs if we did that.

So there are advocates around for the position that being overweight - BMI in the high 20s - need not be unhealthy. They may be right. Observing that in the wild people with BMI in this range suffer a greater frequency of various health problems does not prove them wrong, because correlation does not imply causality.

How to diet said...

Why not to forbid poisoning people with tobacco and unhealthy food?? Not to tax them more, but to make them qualify their production (i.e. food) and to forbid tobacco for sure. Why it is still legal at all? Why do they still make money steeling them from the governments and Medicaid due to the sickness and deaths of us all? And overweight people must receive support from psychologists, ideologists, must receive discounts at gyms and etc. Let us feel that our society cares about us, wish us the best and does not despise us for our problem which we are not able to solve ourselves. That’s why we have it. And if you tax us for our body kilograms for Medicaid or plain tickets we will be much unhappier and less self confident. We will be even more ashamed of ourselves and will exercise and go out less, we will eat more and gain even more overweight. As Bild, the German newspaper, estimated that treatment for obesity-related illnesses cost Germany some £16 billion a year, so better spend that money for our wellness showing that you care, understand and help youself by helping us!