Two Tax Collectors

Tax the Poor to Overcome Obesity

The UK has a proposal for a new national food strategy, but it seems to be sailing in some very choppy waters. The most noted feature of this plan is its proposal to tax the sugar and salt that goes into processed, restaurant, and catered food to help overcome obesity. In addition, there’s a proposal to have the National Health service prescribe fruits and vegetables to encourage healthy eating.

The report was led by a British restaurant entrepreneur, Henry Dimbleby. He co-founded the Leon Restaurants chain. It serves fast food which it claims is healthier and more sustainable than more typical offerings.

Fans are praising the report, but the broader reaction to it has been quite skeptical. Writing in, Jason Reed says it “reveals a disdain for the poor.” A regressive tax is a callous strategy for reducing obesity.

Politically Pragmatic?

Food systems researcher Kelly Parsons characterizes the report as pragmatic, focused on “what is likely to be ‘winnable’ with the current political administration in place.” She notes that the strategy calls for taxes on sugar and salt “to pay for healthy food for those who can’t normally afford it.” This is supposed to drive public and thus political support for the taxes. Report authors also backed away from a tax on meat, calling it “politically impossible.”

But the pragmatism didn’t seem to work out too well. Prime Minister Boris Johnson quickly remarked:

“I’m not, I must say, attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hardworking people. Let me just signal that. I shall study the report with interest.

“It’s an independent report. I think there are doubtless some good ideas in it.”

A Food Tax That Won’t Tax the Poor?

Dimbleby dismissed the idea that the tax on salt and sugar will be a burden to families who are struggling to make ends meet:

“We do not actually believe that for most things it will hike the price – what it will do is it will reformulate, it will make people take sugar and salt out.”

Writing in the Sun, Lady Karren Brady isn’t buying it:

“As a rule, I believe in taxation. But I take issue with this suggested snack tax because it would only really affect low-income families.

“Wealthy families can afford it.

“What people really need is education to adopt new ways of eating and moving to make life-changing differences to their health. And they need easier access to healthy food.

“What they really DON’T need is a new tax putting them even more out of pocket.”

A Missed Opportunity?

At the other end of the spectrum, activists say that this strategy was a missed opportunity to “tackle Britain’s rampant meat consumption.”

However this particular tussle ends, it will not be the end of global food fights. Current systems are not sustainable and do seem to be promoting a global rise in obesity. But a tax that burdens poor people will not help much with obesity. Nor will it clearly produce more sustainable food systems. We need fundamental changes in the systems that feed us.

For further perspective on this proposal, click here, here, and here. To access the full report and supporting documentation, click here.

Two Tax Collectors, painting by Marinus van Reymerswaele / WikiArt

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July 23, 2021