There’s been a lot of talk in internet land lately of Fat Taxes and sporting cultures. I’ve been responding to various topics on them because it’s something I feel quite strongly about, though in general I try not to get into topics and arguments on the internet anymore since it’s a colossal waste of my time and energy to argue with nameless, faceless people who are probably just bored at work. Nonetheless this is the first topic in a while that’s caught my eye:
As you can see it’s a lively debate which I’ve well and truly given my 2 cents. I don’t care so much about the implementation of any new taxes (we’re going to pay for healthcare anyway) as much as I do about free will, the freedom of choice for those who do have healthy lifestyles, and targeting the right people. The government’s proposed “Fat Tax” is essentially a tariff on certain foods which contain high levels of sugar and saturated fat, with the ultimate goal of reducing the nations consumption of these foods and hence, they hope, reducing the rates of obesity and the burden on the healthcare system that conditions such as Diabetes and Heart Disease cause.
All fine so far then. Government makes crap food more expensive, people buy less of it, people get thinner, orderlies in hospitals can sleep better knowing that tomorrow they won’t have to lift obese people. But, but, and furthermore but, there are gaping holes in this theory that you could fit a former health minister through. Firstly, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this tax will have the desired effect. Taxation has never worked. People still smoke and drink despite heavy taxation. Before anyone says it, yes smokers have decreased in the last 2 decades but that decrease corresponded with additional education, bans in workplaces and a change socially. Can this tax have the same effect? No. And here’s why.
Firstly, the tax is targeting the wrong side of the consumer-producer relationship. If the government was really serious about reducing the amount of sugar and fats consumed by the average Irish person, then they would tax the profits on these foods and discourage their marketing and manufacture. Most processed foods are remarkably cheap because they are made from raw materials that are both abundant and easy to render into food form, or because they are leftovers from another process. Think corn and wheat, or the remnants of animals after the good meat has gone. Produce such as vegetables and meat aren’t as cheap because they are labour intensive, have short shelf lives and require special transportation methods such as the Just In Time method or specially refrigerated vehicles. What this means is that chicken nuggets come to market cheaper than chicken breasts. It helps to think of food manufacture and marketing as working in reverse. Normal economics would have it that you find out what the market wants and then you go and make it. Not so with food. Instead, what happens is that companies find that which is cheap and abundant and easily rendered into food through processing. They then turn that into something edible and bring it to market as a new food. Probably the most controversial of these new materials is High Fructose Corn Syrup, a sweetener rendered from corn and now being named in the US in particular as a major contributor in the obesity “epidemic” there.
Given that these products are made from remnants or abundant and cheap raw ingredients, we can see why processed food is so much cheaper than its fresh equivalent- it’s just cheaper to make. You can feed a family for €3 with a €1.50 pizza and a €1.50 box of potato waffles, and do it in 15 minutes with your preparation time being as close to zero as is possible. An equivalent freshly prepared meal would be some pan fried chicken breasts, broccoli and mashed potatoes. It’s a simple meal and let me tell you I’m a better cook than this example suggests, but for clarity, let’s go through it. Chicken breasts cost about €1 each, and let’s say we’re feeding a family of four, two of whom are children and consuming just a half of a breast each. That’s €3 for meat alone. Now spuds are cheap, this is Ireland and as a percentage of the total price of a bag of spuds we’re spending about €0.50c on these. Our head of broccoli cost me €1.69 so our total cost for this meal is €5.19. Preparation time comes in at about 30 minutes. What will happen if a new tax comes in? Well firstly, nothing will change in your preparation time obviously, which for families with two working parents and little quality time together is a major factor. But what about the cost? Well let’s go all out and say that Fine Gael add a massive 20% to the cost of our pizza and waffles family meal above. I don’t think you’ll need to be told that 20% of €3 isn’t all that much. It isn’t. It brings the total price to €3.60, still significantly cheaper than the healthy alternative.
Why is this important? Because the price isn’t the problem. It never has been. In fact the levy on these foods is unlikely to be even as high as that, and even if it is that or higher, you can bet that there will be a corresponding price drop from the producers, who would most likely prefer to see their volumes maintained and their brand untarnished by price raises, and would be willing to take a small cut in per-item profit to do so. We don’t need to guess at this. All we have to do is look at alcohol sales. We tax the shit out of booze, but drinks companies still manage to give us 6 beers for €5 in the front of our supermarkets.
Oh yes, one more small factor is that fresh produce doesn’t qualify for VAT, but “luxury” items do. So we already in essence have a fat tax in the form of VAT. And we still have fat people.
It’s just not as simple as telling people not to eat the wrong food. If it were, this battle would have been won long ago. Since I was a teenager there have been ad campaigns running warning against the dangers of heart disease, high cholesterol, and excess fat, yet we still have an obesity problem. The guy who is sitting down to his burger and coke, the mother who is putting jellies in her kid’s lunchbox, the dad who is cooking his kids pizza and chips every night, they KNOW this stuff is not good. You can’t tell them anything new. They are educated enough on what is bad. The short answer is that everything is bad when you don’t have as much access to what is good. I don’t want to be classist, but it’s plain that when we talk about obesity, we’re talking about people who haven’t been afforded the opportunity of healthy cooking from a young age, and that many of these people are exactly the sort of parents in the examples above- Mams and Dads who are working two jobs, or always on overtime and with little or no time to shop or prepare meals. In fact we’re now in the second generation of parents who may never have seen a meal prepared from scratch. I’m not saying that these phenomena don’t exist in higher-income families, just that it is more prevalent in lower income ones. And now we plan to tax them more.
It won’t work.
Surely a better plan, one which would have demonstrable effects on how we eat is to allocate money to the promotion of good food and education on how to prepare simple, healthy meals. I know this happens already, but has it garnered even half of the headlines this nonsense tax has? Couple this with more stringent controls on how food companies can market foods (ie. Not to children and with more controls on how the words “healthy” and “quality” can be used in advertising would be a start) and I think we might start making headway.
But I can’t stop without pointing out the glaringly obvious. No one puts food in your mouth but you. Taxation of this kind removes personal responsibility and draws us further into the mire of over-governance and the removal of choice. People won’t make the right choices because they will have lost the ability to choose correctly.
End of rant.