Due to the increase in the number of people suffering from obesity as a result of the daily consumption of unhealthy foods high in fat and sugar, the government is considering imposing a levy on food and drink high in these substances. The U.K population spends £29.4 billion a year on take-outs and health professionals report too much “junk food” (pre-prepared or packaged food low in nutritional value) is being consumed. It is projected that, by 2030, more than half of our population will be overweight with a detrimental body mass index (BMI). Many believe a tax would help to avert this catastrophe. In this essay, I intend to discuss the reasons for and against this tax being obligatory.
Diabetes and the intake of “junk food” are closely related. Diabetes is a disease which can have a negative impact on the body as the pancreas’ ability to yield the hormone insulin is affected, resulting in the abnormal metabolism of carbohydrates and elevated levels of glucose in the blood. Type 2 diabetes is caused by multiple factors. Studies have demonstrated that one of the primary causes of obesity is the consumption of foods high in fat and sugar. Diabetes UK state that over 4 million people are living with diabetes in the UK, over 500,000 are undiagnosed and the prevalence is estimated to rise up to 5 million by the year 2025.
The UK government has circulated draft legislation for a tax on sugar-rich drinks, set to commence in April, 2018. Various fizzy drink companies, including Coca-Cola and Fanta, are already engaged in reducing the sugar content found within their refreshments. A standard 330ml can of Coke contains 35 grams of sugar (7 teaspoons), whereas the recommended daily intake is 30 grams for those aged over 11. Cancer Research UK has suggested a 20% tax could avert 4 million cases of obesity.
Mexico, a nation known to love Coca-Cola, has over 70% of its population classified as being obese. It is being observed, with interest, by health experts, to analyse if the tax which has been imposed there on sugary drinks is affecting the purchase and subsequent consumption of these drinks. Academics in the USA and Mexico recorded a 5.5 % decrease in the purchase of sugary beverages in the first year following the imposition of the tax, i.e. in 2015 and a 9.7% decline in the following year. This study is ongoing and health experts are monitoring the research avidly to determine if the outcomes continue to be positive as this may progress to lowering the rate of obesity-related diseases, including type 2 diabetes, thus paving the way for introducing a “fat tax” in other countries.
The Guardian has highlighted various opinions from academics, MPs and healthcare professionals regarding the imposition of the tax being discussed. George Osbourne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, attempted in parliament to persuade MPs that only good would come if the tax came into play. Mr Osbourne anticipated that the finance raised from the tax could be directed to provide assistance in other areas, such as intensification of funds for flood-defence spending. In addition, he proposed that there would be more support and funding for a new air ambulance service. He also envisaged that, with the extra finance, there would be extended aid for the oil and gas industry. Although the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, ruled out the option of the “fat tax” in 2015, Dr Sarah Wollaston, who is a former GP and current Tory Chair of the Health Select Committee, suggested MPs were undermining the findings of scientific reviews and welcomes the move.
The Food Research Collaboration documented, 5 years ago, that more than 60% of the U.K’s population was overweight and a quarter of men and women were obese. The obesity universality was the highest among 45-74 year olds. Up to the age of 15, 17% of boys and 26% of girls were overweight. It is predicted that, by 2030, almost three-quarters of men and women will become obese. However, if this tax was imposed, would this figure not decrease significantly? This is what numerous health specialists predict.
Conversely, the government would have to make difficult decisions regarding which foods should be taxed. There are numerous foods which are high in fat but provide great benefit: cheese, eggs, avocados and so on. We also need to consider that obesity is not just caused by foods high in fat or sugar. High BMI could be related to portion size, how much exercise we undertake and also genetic determinants. Furthermore, it is statistically proven that people on lower incomes often spend a high amount of their earnings on foods which tend not to provide beneficial nutrients due to the healthier options being substantially more expensive, so would they be given a subsidy to aid better nutrition?
Multiple countries, as well as Mexico, have placed a levy on food and drink with elevated fat and sugar content, including Denmark, Norway, Hungary and France. When analysing the data, excluding that from Mexico, 654,000 were found to have a reduction in their BMI, to a level no longer considered to be in the obese range. Furthermore, Linda Cobiac, a research scientist from the University of Melbourne, Australia, calculated 500,000 years of life could be added on to Australia’s population if the tax was imposed on those foods high in salt, sugar or saturated fat, which could then be used to contribute towards a reduction in the price of fruit and vegetables.
On the other hand, there are limitations as to what a governing body can impose, as in Denmark and Mexico, many of the citizens ended up crossing the border to transport the now-illegal goods back into the country and sell them which shows that the tax may be ineffective and could even influence obesity numbers to upsurge again!
Even given such drawbacks, however, the annual cost of obesity related healthcare in the world is estimated to be around $2 trillion, which is an astronomical figure. When we add the health costs in terms of suffering – high blood pressure, loss of vision, amputations related to diabetes, it seems obvious that we, as mankind, should work together to try to counteract the levels of those living with obesity by introducing a tax on foods high in fat or sugar, excluding those with essential nutrients and minerals. This would then enable the money saved and revenue raised to be directed to more productive areas.