Some people are born lucky. They can eat junk food all day long without putting on any weight. Others develop rolls of fat after a few packets of crisps. The former can live blissfully without these concerns. The latter must struggle every day – either with obesity or self-control and exercise – to stay in good shape.
Whichever side you fall, “The National Food Strategy” is a primal attack on your personal autonomy. In the name of reducing your waistline, it seeks to tax, subsidise and “nudge,” the favourite term of the meddlers. Henry Dimbleby, the author of the report, thinks you are just a piece on the chess board to be moved around at his personal desire. This is the man who founded fast food chain Leon – so Dimbleby first helps get you fat, then he wants to tax you for the pleasure.
The landmark recommendation is to introduce a new tax on salt and sugar. This imposition will cost households on average £172 per year while doing nothing to reduce obesity. It will hit staples: jam up 46 per cent, cornflakes up 33 per cent, ketchup up 23 per cent. The foods that bring joy will also get more expensive: Skittles up 32 per cent, Twix bars up 25 per cent, and brownies up 21 per cent.
Dimbleby claims this new tax won’t have much impact on households but will still somehow raise billions of pounds. This is a load of codswallop. A few extra pounds here or there might not sound much for a millionaire like Dimbleby. But for struggling families, who bring discount vouchers and count pennies when shopping, this would be a very real impost.
The other alternative is that food manufacturers reformulate and shrink their products. This means punishing everyone with less tasty foods, taking a little bit of joy out of our lives, because some people are irresponsible.
All this pain is coming for very little benefit. Even under the hopeful official estimates it will reduce calorie consumption by just half a biscuit per a day. If you think this will have any meaningful impact on obese individuals, I have a bridge to sell you. The evidence is clear from past impositions that those overweight keep consuming just as many calories in the face of taxes.
As Prime Minister Boris Johnson has discovered: there’s no easy way to drop and keep off the pounds for many. Boris reportedly had a road to Damascus moment on obesity last year after a life-threatening brush with Covid-19.
This was an important personal moment but apparently supercharged nanny statism among the formally libertarian-minded leader. Thankfully, Boris appears to be leaving Damascus. “It’s an independent report,” the Prime Minister highlighted in response to Dimbleby. “I’m not, I must say, attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hardworking people. Let me just signal that.”
The most disingenuous argument for Nanny Statist interventions like this proposed tax is to “protect the NHS”. This gets things completely the wrong way around: the healthcare system exists to protect people. We don’t live for a healthcare system or we would eat greyish slop and never leave home for fear of ending up in a car accident.
It’s also not even true that these policies will have much impact on the NHS. If everyone overweight miraculously lost 5lbs it would “save” the NHS just £100 million over five years, according to former Health Secretary Matt Hancock. That’s 1/8000 of the NHS budget over five years. That’s the amount spent by 6.00am on 1st January of the first year.
It takes relentless hard work to eat healthy, resist temptation and dedicate yourself to exercise. This requires individual responsibility. Many people choose not to take these steps, and suffer the consequences of worsened health and shorter lives. This is ultimately a decision for you to make about your body, not one that can come from high up.
The best the state can do is encourage good behaviour. Dimbleby’s emphasis is extremely top down and backwards looking. He would prefer to manipulate people with taxes then empower them to make better choices using new technologies that can analyse your genetics and identify which foods to eat and which to avoid. In order to help the environment, he would prefer to “nudge” people to eat 30 per cent less meat rather than focus on cutting red tape to cultured meat put up by the Food Standards Authority.
There’s sadly no simple solutions to reducing obesity – and even if there were, taxing the poorest households wouldn’t be it.