A modest proposal for solving the obesity problem

April 17, 2012

It was bound to happen. You could see it waddling into view from a long way off. We are now being told by the medics that we should seriously consider a tax on fatty foods, in order to combat the scourge of obesity. How appropriate that, according to The Independent, the Deputy PM is planning to recruit 65,000 “State Nannies”!

One wonders how the new tax will be computed. Will it be a higher rate of tax on higher fat-content foods? Will chicken breast be taxed at a lower rate than chicken legs? Will omega-3 fats be taxed at a lower rate than omega-6? Either way, we can look forward to a tabloid feeding frenzy which will make pastygate look like a Cornish picnic.

As with minimum alcohol prices, it punishes us all for the sake of a minority. Why should those of us who have no weight problem be penalised for eating fatty food which may be doing us very little harm? And in any case, what gives the State the right to stop us from harming ourselves simply on the grounds that the NHS cannot afford to carry the cost? Surely when personal liberty and the NHS are in conflict, it is the NHS which has to give way?

Given that personal liberty is now such a low priority, apparently ranking a long way below concerns like NHS costs, I want to propose a far better solution, a more direct approach that goes straight to the root of the problem, while sidestepping the distractions of having to negotiate with the food suppliers.

What about a real fat tax?

I mean a tax levied on body fat. Using the standard BMI-type calculations, we compute a weight allowance for every individual, taking account of age, height and any other factors regarded as relevant. Then, for every pound over their allowance, people pay tax at a rate increasing with their excess weight. The obese would then pay tax at a rate which reflected the burden they impose on the NHS.

Children, who should certainly not be exempt, are already weighed routinely at school. Their parents could be weighed at the end of each tax-year by their GP’s, who would provide a weight certificate in the same way they hand out sick-notes today.

Now consider the advantages of my proposal compared to the medical profession’s tax on fatty foods. My fat tax would involve no complex calculations about the nutritional properties of different types of food and would reward exercise as much as dieting. It would be easy to collect, easy for people to understand and hard to evade – no chance of selling your own fat to a trust fund in the Cayman Islands! Whereas a tax on fatty foods will simply make producers fiddle with food content so as to minimise the tax rate on the items they sell, a real fat tax will force both producers and consumers to concentrate on the true bottom line. Moreover, the prospect of people being able to reduce their tax bill by making the effort to lose weight will help to defray the cost of running shoes, gym membership and buying smaller size clothes.

On the negative side, some may object that taxing body weight would be regressive, given that the obesity plague overwhelmingly affects the poor, but the same could be said of the tax on junk foods proposed by the medical profession, not to mention the existing taxes on traditional working class vices like cigarettes and beer.

Best of all, a body weight tax would finally bury the myth that British citizens should be protected from intrusive government even though their quaint attachment to personal liberty costs the NHS billions every year, and in the process it would open the way to more innovative taxes along similar lines. For example, what about a tax on unprotected sex? Or sunbathing?

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