Obesity is a political issue. Is it the state’s job to control what we eat?
At their annual conference next month, Lib Dems will debate the introduction of a tax on fizzy drinks. Baroness Parminter, proposing the measure, says the new tax will tackle a childhood ‘obesity timebomb’.
There’s clearly a problem with obesity: we’re getting bigger (an ‘obesity epidemic’ could see half of British men clinically obese by 2030) and it’s not making us healthier (as well as heart problems, obesity is linked to cancers, diabetes etc).
Diet, rather than lifestyle, could be the prime culprit. Research published last month revealed western office workers burn the same amount of calories as people living in hunter-gatherer communities. Dr Herman Pontzer, the anthropologist at New York’s Hunter College who headed up the study, commented: “This to me says that the big reason that Westerners are getting fat is because we eat too much – it’s not because we exercise too little.”
So does this mean the state should use taxes to control our expanding waistlines? After all, we slap high taxes on tobacco products to reduce consumption (and raise £9.5bn a year for the Treasury in duty).
Nobody welcomes a new tax (nobody who will actually have to pay it, that is). And people feel particularly irked by attempts to control their lifestyle. Just today, a poll in New York found a majority opposed to Mayor Bloomberg’s limits on the size of sugary drinks. In the UK, commentators – like economist Tim Worstall in today’s Telegraph blogs – are already ridiculing Baroness Parminter’s freshly-minted fizz-tax proposals.
Given the rising cost of obesity (human and financial), it’s tempting to yield to calls that ‘something must be done’. But it’s not clear that fat taxes (or ‘bad’ food bans) offer an answer. Tax is a blunt instrument that hits the poor hardest of all. Ultimately, it’s up to us, and not the taxman, to take responsibility for what we eat.