The Sunday Times Published: 9 October 2011. Lois Rogers.
Should we tax curries, butter and other fatty foods to curb rising obesity? Ministers are watching as other nations impose levies
Like many people, Denise Townsend knew she was eating too much. She was fat and depressed, but the temptations were just too great.
In every supermarket she encountered arrays of cakes, biscuits and supersized chocolate bars; in every high street the air was heavy with the aroma of curries, kebabs, pizzas and fried chicken. It was all too easy to eat startling quantities of fat without even realising it.
“For most fat people food is an addiction: they just can´t stop eating,” said Townsend, 50, of Broughton Astley, Leicestershire. She is the founder of HOPE – Help for Obese People Everywhere. She went from 34 stone to 12 by cutting out junk meals and said: “When I was at my worst, food was like a drug; I just couldn´t get enough of it. Although there is support for drug and alcohol addicts, there´s nothing for people with a food problem.”
So in the battle against fat and flab, do people need a helping hand? Should the government play more of a role? A rising number believe so. Hungary has already introduced levies on food products that are high in calories but low in nutrients. The Netherlands, Finland, New Zealand and Australia plan to follow suit.
France has just announced plans for a tax on soft drinks, and a number of American states have similar “soda taxes”. This month Denmark, which already taxes soft drinks, became the first western European country to introduce a fat tax. It has imposed a levy of 16 kroner (£1.86) per kg (2.2lb) of saturated fat in food products. It will add about 26p to the cost of a small packet of butter and 10p to a burger.
On Monday David Cameron suggested that Britain should consider similar measures to help tackle what some experts call an epidemic of obesity.
The latest Health Survey for England, using data from 2009, shows that 61% of adults in Britain are overweight or obese. Even more worryingly, 28% of children aged two to 10 are overweight or obese. If present trends continue, 60% of the population will be “morbidly obese” by 2050.
Speaking on Radio Five, Cameron said: “A fat tax is something we should look at. Look at America, how bad things have got there … what happens if we don´t do anything. I´m worried about the cost to the health service, the fact that some people are going to have shorter lives than their parents”.
But would a fat tax be unfair,hitting the poor hardest? And would it work?
EVEN before Denmark acted and Cameron spoke, councillors in Oldham had considered their own local form of fat tax. It´s not hard to see why: some of the town´s arteries are clogged with takeaway outlets. It claims the unenviable record of having the highest number of takeaways as a percentage of population anywhere in Britain.
About 250 takeaway outlets are in the town centre, and while some open only for the late night pub and club trade, many others do brisk business from mid-morning onwards. In Yorkshire Street there are 14 in one strip of little more than 200 yards; there are similar concentrations in other streets.
So earlier this year local councillors put forward a plan to impose a £1,000 “tax” on any new takeaways opening in the area. A Labour councillor, Steven Bashforth, was spurred to act after KFC [Kentucky Fried Chicken] was given planning permission to open in a neighbourhood that already had 16 takeaways.
He said at the time: “We literally have streets that consist of nothing but kebab shops, chippies, curry houses, pizza, chicken and burger outlets”.
However, the plan was quietly shelved in the face of corporate opposition, and last week locals were still happily tucking into fried chicken, burgers and kebabs. Most felt a fat tax would have little impact on their eating habits.
“You´ve got to eat, haven´t you?” said Sue Aspray, 22, on her way into the Florida Fried Chicken. “It´s only a bit of chicken and chips for my dinner. I don´t eat it every day – it´s just convenient.”
Asif Ahmed, a 17 year-old student, said: “Chicken doesn´t make you fat. They just want to tax everything they can.”