I don't want James Reilly telling me what to eat, but we need a fat tax

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

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.

Dunnes had no special offers on fruit or vegetables either – but 17 different discounts on processed foods and sweets for Halloween. Fresh fruit and vegetables feature seven times in Centra’s current discount booklet – but that’s compared to more than 30 special offers on high-calorie snacks and processed foods.

Critics of fat taxes invariably point out that they have a disproportionate effect on poorer households, because people on lower incomes spend a proportionally greater chunk of their household budget on food. But if that’s true, then it’s also the case that they will get a proportionally greater benefit from subsidies on healthier foods.

The other criticism made against the fat tax is that it’s yet more interference from the government in our lives. I don’t like the idea of James Reilly telling me what to eat any more than you do. But unfortunately, there’s good evidence that we need a bit of nannying.

Years of gentle government chiding about the dangers of cigarettes saw little improvement in our health: one year after the smoking ban was introduced, a study carried out in Cork found that hospital admissions for acute coronary syndrome had fallen by 12 per cent. How many – if any – lives have been saved by the ban is disputed, but at least one study by the Tobacco Control Journal claims the figure is more than 1,700.

The other thing that’s appealing about a fat tax is that it calls the problem what it is.

We’re careful about the language we use to discuss our weight, because we don’t want to stigmatise anyone, or because we’re concerned about teenagers and their body image. And perhaps we’re right to be: research published this week found that one third of 2,000 teenagers surveyed are unhappy with their body image.

But maybe we’ve become too coy. We use words such as “obesity” because they sound like they’re describing a medical condition, when “fat” sounds more like a lifestyle choice. By mincing our words like this, we’re detracting from the fact that it is our lifestyle that’s making us fat.

A study conducted in the US over four decades found that Americans aren’t eating more at mealtimes than their parents or grandparents, or even expending less energy – it’s what they’re eating (and drinking) between meals that’s doing the damage.

This won’t change overnight. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and a fat tax is as good a place as any.

Malala’s message for the Taliban – and the West

ONE OF the most affecting moments in Adam Ellick’s 2009 documentary on Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot last week by the Taliban, happens during the moments after she returns with her family to their home in the Swat valley, from which they had been displaced during the summer.

Malala, then 11, cries when she discovers her brothers’ two beloved pet chickens have died, and then she goes to her bedroom to retrieve her pink schoolbag. She sits on her bed, leafing through her notebooks. “The chickens died, but you got your notebooks?” Ellick asks her. “Yes,” she replies. “I think the notebooks are more precious.”

Malala’s “crime” was that she wanted to learn, and she was willing to campaign for that right. She had come to prominence when she wrote a blog for the BBC that made her an international symbol of opposition to the Taliban. But she’s also just a child – as evidenced by the documentary, which was screened on BBC World yesterday and is available on the New York Times website. Yousafzai is a child who is articulate and wise way beyond her years, but still a child.

This week, she was flown to a Birmingham hospital, where doctors say there is a good chance she will recover. On the same day, a reporter from CNBC visited the school for girls run by her father in Mingora.

It was full – every child was at their desk. It is hard to imagine a more powerful message to the Taliban – or a more compelling reminder to the rest of the world of how lucky we are to have universal education systems to squabble over.

Felix Baumgartner: hero, adventurer, claustrophobe

HERE’S THE most surprising piece of news you’ll read all week – or your money back.

Felix Baumgartner, the man who jumped from 24 miles above the Earth, suffers from such severe claustrophobia that he once fled the US rather than get back in his pressurised suit and helmet.

His five-year training for his world-record jump was almost derailed by his phobia, which he eventually learned to control with the help of a sports psychologist. They used techniques including “combat breathing” – deep breathing, to the rest of us – and positive self-talk.

“We cultivated a situation to move a person to the edge of panic,” his psychologist Dr Michael Gervais told Wired magazine. “Imagine doing that repeatedly over 30 hours of training and, at the end of it, you’ve got full control of how your mind works, and you breathe freely in those moments.”

Fellow panic-attack sufferers, take heart.

Twitter: @jenoconnell

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