Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

Anti- Fat Tax
Corriere della Sera - August 11th 2008

So, a report by the French tax and social affairs inspectorate wants to promote higher taxes on foods that are “too rich, too sweet, too salty and are not strictly necessary”. In other words, everything that people like to eat. Supposedly, the reason is that too many French people have become obese: 20% of all adults. Similar statistics can be found in many European countries, especially in northern Europe. But the question is: why should this be a problem for the government to try to deal with, rather than for the individual people and their families?

            In fact, with food prices high and inflation a worry all across Europe, it is very unlikely that the French budget minister, Eric Woerth, or any of his counterparts in other countries, will want to implement this recommendation any time soon. It would raise food prices, would add to inflation and would hurt poorer families more than richer ones. Obesity is more widespread among the poor and food takes up a larger proportion of their incomes.

            Nevertheless, budget ministers everywhere will be sorely tempted to introduce such “fat taxes” once world food prices have fallen and the pressure of inflation has eased (which, by the way, is beginning to happen as crude oil has fallen in price by 20% in the past month alone). They will say that they are doing so out of a noble concern for their nations’ health and for national spending on health care. The truth will be a little different: from the point of view of a Treasury, taxes on goods to which we are addicted—alcohol, cigarettes, sweet and fatty food—are the best taxes of all, for our demand for those goods is not very sensitive to higher prices. So such taxes bring in large and reliable revenues.

            Am I too cynical? Perhaps, but many taxpayers are justifiably cynical about governments’ motives and methods in levying taxation. Beyond that cynicism, however, there are objections to this idea of “fat taxes” both in principle and in practice.

            The objection in principle is simple: unless eating something is physically highly dangerous, to ourselves, our families and our neighbours, it should surely be our right to decide what we want to eat, just as it is our right to decide what clothes to wear and what sort of car we want to drive. Many activities are potentially bad for our health: climbing mountains, driving fast cars, drinking alcohol and eating Tiramisu are all among them. Tiramisu may not be too salty, but it is certainly too rich and too sweet, and is not strictly necessary either. Why should our government penalise us for eating Tiramisu?

            That phrase from the French report gives the writers’ game away: “not strictly necessary”. Virtually everything we do is not strictly necessary, and certainly that applies to most of what we eat. Our dining habits passed beyond mere subsistence many decades ago. So the practical question about the fat tax is: where should the line be drawn between those substances and foods to be penalised and those not? Pizzas rather than Tiramisu? Pizzas with a lot of meat or cheese rather than those with vegetables? Hamburgers rather than Osso Buco? It would be a nightmare, full of absurd decisions and distinctions, creating a whole industry dedicated to producing foods that just squeeze into the lower tax categories. The tax system is complicated enough already.

            If something is actually dangerous, the government can and should just ban it. Otherwise, leave the choices to us. It is our health and our right to protect it or to abuse it.


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