Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Fat taxes - targeting the preferences of the poor (again)


Why do I never hear cries of anguish and anger from those who claim to champion the interests of the poor when the matter of nannying taxes on "junk food" arises.

"Fat taxes" would have to increase the price of unhealthy food and drinks by as much as 20% in order to cut consumption by enough to reduce obesity and other diet-related diseases, experts have said. Such levies should be accompanied by subsidies on healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables to help encourage a significant shift in dietary habits, according to research published in the British Medical Journal.

And the target for these nannying fussbuckets is to change the habits of the poor - to force them to eat more expensive, less pleasing (at least to them) food. And that this will be a "benefit" to those poor people:

Although the less well-off are affected more by health-related food taxes, they may also ultimately benefit because "progressive health gains are expected because poor people consume less healthy food and have a higher incidence of most diet-related diseases, notably cardiovascular disease"

The poor, ignorant chavs don't know any better do they - they must be shoved into a change of habits, into no longer eating the stuff they like to eat because a minority of them get unhealthily fat. There's no discussion as to why so people get so fat or how support from the medical profession might help such folk. No, we make these foods - what we might call "working class" foods - more expensive because we disapprove of them.

The New Puritan's first target is becoming clear - "sugary" drinks. And, as they ever do, the chosen approach is what we might call epidemiological creativity:

Research in America found that a 35% tax on drinks sweetened with sugar sold in a canteen, which added about 28p to the price, led to a 26% drop in sales. Studies have estimated that a 20% levy on such drinks in the US would cut obesity by 3.5% and that adding 17.5% to the cost of unhealthy food products in the UK could lead to 2,700 fewer deaths from heart disease

Read the above paragraph carefully and you'll see that, while it suggests a single piece of research, it really notes findings and "estimates" from at least three wholly unrelated studies. The first one shows that, in a controlled environment, if you increase the price of something by 35% you get a big drop in sales. Nothing surprising there then. However, the writer then eases smoothly into a "studies have estimated" statement about whether those price increases would reduce 'obesity'. This is what's known, in less high-flying circles, as a "guess" - indeed, a guess designed to fit the prejudice of the author.

This creative deception is then repeated with a second estimate, this time on reduced deaths from heart disease. Here we should note that the tax (one assumes VAT since the increase is 17.5%) is applied to all "unhealthy" foods not just to the sugary drinks referred to in the other half of the sentence.

The entire paragraph - I suspect lifted straight from a press release without question or challenge by Mr Campbell the Guardian's health correspondent - is designed to deceive us, to suggest that fat taxes will save lives whereas the truth is that we have no idea at all whether fat taxes will result in such a benefit. Especially when - as we know well - rates of heart disease have been falling, year-on-year for at least three decades.

Just as with minimum pricing for alcohol, these proposals - wrapped up in supposed concerns about obesity - are merely a pseudo-scientific manifestation of arrogant middle-class prejudice.

"Oh no, we wouldn't let our Jamie go to McDonald's"

"We only use natural fruit juices - we won't have Coke in the house"

And so on - these are the thoughts driving the fat tax campaign. It is simply New Puritan disapproval. So what if rates of childhood obesity are falling - something must be done. It you're going to eat burger and chips let is be hand-formed burgers using welfare-farmed lean rare breed beef and organic, hand-cooked chunky chips rather than a Big Mac and fries. So what if ordinary folk then can't afford to treat their kids - think of the health benefits!

We should stop and think for a minute about what all this means. Not just that introducing such a tax would be a "pasty tax" on steroids but that we are targeting the preferences of the poor for no other reason than that we disapprove of them. And this - while understandable in the righteous Guardian reader - is simply wrong.


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