An Oxford academic has claimed that a “fat tax” on unhealthy foods should be implemented to halt Britain’s growing obesity crisis.
Dr Mike Rayner, of the University’s Department of Public Health, has called for a system where all unhealthy foods are taxed in the same way as taxes used to discourage people from drinking and smoking, and that such a tax will raise money for the Treasury and prevent premature deaths.
He claims that a quarter of British adults are overweight or obese, costing the health service over £5 billion a year.
Rayner has suggested an initial levy on soft drinks, which would add 12p to the price of a can of coke. This measure is significantly stricter than a similar law in France that adds just two euro cents to a can. He claims this would have the potential to reduce obesity cases by 400,000 and save 2,000 lives a year, due to people switching to healthier alternatives.
Rayner told the BBC: “There’s evidence to show that manipulating food prices can encourage healthy eating. So why are we so reluctant to change the way we tax food?
“We’re in the grip of an obesity crisis. As a nation we’re consuming too many calories and eating too much cheap, energy-dense food, like crisps, chocolate bars or fizzy drinks.”
Last year, Denmark introduced a “fat tax” on foods containing saturated fats, which may raise cholesterol levels. Rayner, however, has noted that many low-fat foods in Britain are high in salt, which might result in tackling one problem only to create another.
Nina Fischer, President of the Oxford Conservative Association, said: “Even if the problem of obesity could be reduced by the introduction of a ‘fat tax’, such paternalism would excessively interfere with people’s autonomy.
“People’s life choices have an inherent value and should be respected insofar as others are not adversely affected by them.”
Mairi Robertson, President of Oxford University Liberal Democrats, expressed concerns that the proposed tax would hit the poorest the hardest: “The socio-economic implications of such a tax must be accounted for.
“Food of high nutritious value is often more expensive than junk food, and therefore a measure such as this must go ‘hand-in-hand’ with efforts to make healthy food more affordable.”
She also said that the discussion should focus upon encouraging better overall lifestyle choices, in which a good diet and regular exercise play a major part.
Anthony Breach and Kevin Feeney, Co-Chairs of the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) said: “’VAT on fat” is not something that we or the rest of OULC would automatically oppose.”
However, they added: “Some of the most desperately poor in our society have no choice but to eat unhealthy food for its cheap calories, and any tax increases would disproportionately affect them.”
Ben Lake, a first year at Trinity agreed, saying: “I think that imposing a ‘fat tax’ will just make it more expensive for poorer families to eat unhealthily, rather than causing a dramatic change in people’s dietary habits.”
Rayner, however, is adamant that such an argument should not be an obstacle to the tax: “It is also the same with alcohol tax and tobacco tax – all indirect taxes hit those on poorest incomes most.”
He added: “The poorest are also most likely to have the most health benefits as they tend to eat the worst food.”
Last month, the government announced it would introduce a VAT hike on hot takeaway food – igniting the “pastygate” controversy – but Rayner said the system of taxing food is still “very muddled”.
He added: “I don’t care whether it is hot or cold, whether we get it from a shop or takeaway, what I want is a tax on all unhealthy food from butter to biscuits.”