October 1st 2011 was a dark day indeed. In Scotland new legislation came into force, banning shops and supermarkets from offering special deals on alcohol purchases, while in Demark the world’s first ever fat tax was introduced. The Danish tax targets specifically saturated fat, and affects such items as butter, milk, cheese, meat and processed foods.
It is highly probable that Britain will follow Denmark’s dismal lead. Last year it was reported that the idea was already being considered, and that as much as 17.5 per cent in tax might be levied on foods containing high levels of fat.
Various reasons are put forward to justify state intervention in our eating and drinking habits. First and foremost among these is that it is for the good of the nation’s health.
Hit people in their pockets, and less lives will be lost due to alcohol related causes, the argument goes. Place a surcharge on “bad” fats, and the resulting lower levels of obesity will mean that there are less premature deaths.
This, however, is a crazily simplistic view both of the human body and of human society.
Take the Danish fat tax, for instance. Why make a special culprit of saturated fat when it comes to the supposed causes of obesity? What about sugar, or lack of exercise?
It is generally agreed, moreover, that we can healthily consume a certain quantity of saturated fat on a daily basis. To dub this particular aspect of our diet undesirable, therefore, and not to take into account the form in which we eat it, is quite unbelievably one-dimensional. Consider, for instance, the nutritional differences between a baked potato with grated cheese, and a bag of chemical-flavoured crisps.
There is, furthermore, significant and little publicised evidence to suggest that obesity itself is not by any means the health problem that it is made out to be.
In May 2005 Scientific American reported that “an increasing number of scholars have begun accusing obesity experts, public health officials and the media of exaggerating the health effects of the epidemic of overweight and obesity”.
The journal drew attention to an assertion that many of those making these negative health claims are funded by the weight-loss industry.
It went on to quote Professor Paul F Campos, author of The Obesity Myth, who pointed out that “genetic differences account for 50 to 80 percent of the variation of fatness within a population”, and said that exaggerating the dangers of being fat may actually encourage unbalanced diets and lead to increased weight gain: “We may be creating a disease simply by labelling it as such.”
The negative effects of high alcohol consumption are less debatable. Nevertheless, recent research suggests that there might be more health benefits from drinking a moderate amount of wine than from being a teetotaller. Possible links have been posited between French people’s consumption of red wine and the country’s low incidence of cardiovascular disease.
In short, a sledgehammer mentality is being brought to bear on some very complex issues.
And very emotive ones. We are frequently invited to abhor the amount of money that society is forced to spend on the healthcare of boozers and fatties.
Yet this, too, is based on an incomplete and faulty picture. Even supposing that, if people lost weight and stopped drinking, they wouldn’t die of the diseases supposedly caused by these habits, they would still die of something else – a side of the equation which is almost always ignored.
Excessive alcohol consumption was an extremely significant factor in the 10 most frequently occurring causes of death for people under the age of 65 in Scotland between 2007 and 2009. If we are to consider human life in such terms, heavy drinkers are – to put it bluntly – off the books long before abstemious individuals who contract, say, long-term dementia.
When it comes to changing a population’s behaviour, whether financial disincentives make a difference as to how people spend their money remains, anyway, unclear.
The BBC’s report on the big increases in the tax on alcohol included in the 2008 Budget is a case in point.
A representative of the Beer and Pub Association claimed that the changes would affect where people drank, but not how much.
A personal finance expert said they would reduce consumption. And a spokesperson for the Centre for Economics and Business Research described the demand for both cigarettes and alcohol as “quite inelastic. Percentage changes in price don’t have much effect because people don’t want to change their consumption … If you want a cigarette you can’t really replace that with anything else.”
So nothing conclusive there – a recurring feature across the whole area.
Given which, wouldn’t it be better just to inform people of the genuine facts, such as we know them, and leave it to them to decide which risks they are, and are not, willing to take? The only proviso, as ever, being that their behaviour does not negatively impact upon others.
As things stand, our current and projected laws are of dubious value and also unfair.
Both rich and poor alike are now obliged to pay more for a drink, but the latter are less able to afford it.
A fat tax would, likewise, hit the most disadvantaged hardest. A report carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, looking into the idea, concluded that, in the terms of their model, a fat tax would cost the poor about seven times more, as a proportion of their income, than the rich.
You could, of course, argue that this might potentially make the poor more inclined to change their lifestyles, but isn’t that alarmingly discriminatory?
And anyway, why should the least privileged in society be deprived of the treats that help many of us to limp through an economic crisis caused, and perpetuated, by the affluent?
As one commentator I came across observed: “Maybe if life in this country wasn’t so bloody awful, we wouldn’t have to drink so much to blot it all out.”