I don't want James Reilly telling me what to eat, but we need a fat tax
THERE ARE many good reasons to oppose the introduction of a fat tax. It is not a silver bullet capable of solving the obesity crisis. It is not fair – fat taxes invariably hit those on lower incomes hardest. It will hurt the food industry. It smacks of the nanny state. It puts the emphasis on size rather than health. And it’s another tax.
Despite all that, I believe we need a fat tax. And here’s why: one in four Irish children is overweight or obese, along with 60 per cent of adults. Give it another two decades and one billion adults worldwide will be obese – or maybe we should just say “overweight”, or “chubby” or “fat” (more of which below).
If we’ve learned anything from previous experience with the plastic-bag levy and penalty points for speeding, it’s that if you really want to change the behaviour of Irish consumers, you need to hit them in the pocket.
Denmark has already done this: it brought in a tax on saturated fat last year, which adds 20 cent to a pound of butter, but excludes milk. Hungary has a smaller junk-food tax, and France a tax on all sweetened drinks.
Last weekend, at an economics workshop in Galway, researchers Maria Murray and Micheál Collins made the case for an Irish fat tax – a levy on saturated fat, and added sugar and salt. Their plan would raise €188 million in revenue and add around €2.18 to the average weekly household shopping bill.
It’s a good proposal, but it doesn’t go far enough. A recent study carried out at Oxford University suggests that for a fat tax to have any real impact on obesity and heart disease, it would need to increase the price of unhealthy food by 20 per cent.
If the fat tax is to become more than just another drain on hard-pressed households, it needs to be used to fund other measures, such as clearer labelling of food products, some form of subsidy for healthier foods, and the implementation of measures to force restaurants to put calorie counts on menus.
Restaurants, though, aren’t the main culprits in the battle to improve the nation’s diet. We also need to look at supermarkets.
It’s all very well lecturing consumers about making the best nutritional choices, but for most of us, it is what’s in your wallet at the end of the week that decides what goes into the shopping trolley. And the unpalatable truth is that eating badly has never been so affordable.
Take the special offers being promoted online by some supermarkets this week. The 24 food items featured in Tesco.ie’s Special Offers section yesterday included crisps, cakes, pizzas and chicken nuggets, but not a single fresh fruit or vegetable.