Friday 7 October 2011

The fat of the land

Denmark has recently introduced a fat tax imposing an additional levy on all foodstuffs containing over 2.3% saturated fat (an oddly specific figure – how did they arrive at that?). Our esteemed Prime Minister has indicated that this is something he might be willing to consider for the UK (h/t to Leg-Iron for the poster).

This has been extensively discussed already in the blogosphere, but the following points are worth making:
  1. There is an inherent contradiction in any such Pigovian tax as, by definition, if it is successful in its objective it will yield little or no revenue. Using the tax system as a means to promote changes in behaviour is a blunt and inefficient instrument that is highly prone to unforeseen and unwanted consequences.
  2. While it’s hard to see people smuggling crisps, any tax system that imposes arbitrary cut-off points will inevitably lead to action by producers to get around it, as we are seeing with the new beer duty regime. Look forward to a whole raft of products in Denmark coming in at exactly 2.3% fat. These may well be even more “processed” than those they replace, and less palatable to boot.
  3. It goes completely against common sense to stigmatise such natural, traditional and wholesome foods as butter and cheese, especially as many experts (as quoted in the BBC report about Denmark) believe that “salt, sugar and refined carbohydrates are more detrimental to health”. It is a dangerous game to try to sort foodstuffs into the “healthy” and “unhealthy” as in reality, as has often been said, there are no unhealthy foods, only unhealthy diets. You might perceive fatty burgers as “unhealthy”, but you’d live a damn sight longer on a diet of fatty burgers than on a diet of lettuce and celery.
At a time when we are in the middle of a global debt crisis and have been experiencing riots in the streets, to regard this as any kind of important political issue suggests a highly inappropriate choice of priorities, and indeed is indicative of a yawning disconnect between the political class and the general public, as Brendan O’Neill suggests here:
Cameron’s comments about a fat tax – which would target those great scourges of our age: ‘milk, cheese, pizza, meat, oil and processed food’ – were particularly striking, because they gave an insight into what this oligarchical political class thinks of those who live outside its bubble. We are not political subjects to be engaged with, apparently, but rather bovine objects to be physically tampered with, punished for our gluttony, pressured to ditch those gastro-pleasures which the political and media elites, as they discuss the horrors of sexist language over wine and vol-au-vents, have decreed to be ‘fattening’.
You do have to wonder if eventually the worm will turn and give the politicians a nasty bite on the no-doubt well-padded and fat-laden bum.

Edit: there’s an excellent article here by Basham and Luik in which they arge that “fat taxes” and “sugar taxes” quite simply do not work, and indeed may lead to people eating less “healthily”, not more.


  1. Cameron is displaying his spineless, 'all things to all people' attitude.

    He's managed to turn traditional Tory voters such as I away from them - he's not the heir to Blair - he's another Heath disaster waiting to happen.

    Fannying about, concerned about plastic bags and wind farms demonstrates that he is not fit for porpoise.

    Nobody believes him. The only consolation is that he's not Gordon Brown - and the contents of my lavatory pan this morning would have made a more presentable PM than he.

    So we are stuck - would you like the barbed wire pulled out through your urethra or your nipsy?

    I am very fond of scratchings and have them about once a month. Am I to be penalised because I've give EVERYBODY CANCERS?

    There's a reason I have scratchings at the pub - if I took them home, I'd be eviscerated. It's my little indulgence. Now this prick wants to tax it.

  2. I'm not entirely sure about the implied conspiracy theories. Taxing things you disapprove of is a simple way of apparently doing something while in reality doing very little, except perhaps raise a bit of extra revenue. Smoking for example: while I know a few people who have given up, I can't think of anyone who did it because of the punitive tax increases.

    Educating people about healthy diets and lifestyles is the obvious way forward, but you have to accept that some people will exercise their right to ignore the message, and that it's a slow and costly process, not a quick fix. Banging on a tax is a much cheaper and simpler option. The fact that it won't achieve the desired end is neither here nor there: the politicians can proclaim they have done something about the problem.

  3. Hmm, not sure I see any conspiracy theory in this.

    But it does underline the point that the political class are both out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people and have a profoundly patronising attitude towards them.

    On issues like this I suspect Cameron and Miliband have far more in common with each other than they do with you or me.

  4. Its the continuous pick-pick-picking away at life's pleasures that is alienating the politicians at the moment.
    Every poxy day they are there. Ban this, restrict that and tax everything.

  5. Conspiracy theories: it was something in 20 Rothmans' comment I was referring to, not your post.

    "The political class are both out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people and have a profoundly patronising attitude towards them."

    I agree completely and have long held such a view, recently confirmed by the Home Secretary's stupid comments about a cat; she clearly thought we would swallow any old cobblers.

  6. This kind of ruling will surely cause different reactions among people. definitely, you cannot expect them to simply follow when they are about to face some changes in their lives.


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