I like Jamie Oliver, and I like the fact that he is keen to use his celebrity status to make a difference to peoples’ lives. But some of the aspects of his latest campaign (to add a “sugar tax” to fizzy drinks and to ring fence the proceeds for use in tackling childhood obesity) niggle at me a little bit.
Firstly, I work in tax. Tax is complicated. Logistically, the tax department is not set up to be able to “ring fence” profits. And, really, can you imagine if it was? The public pay tax and they have to be able to trust the authorities to use the pot of money in the best possible way – that’s the way that our current democratic system works. We don’t ring fence cigarette tax to treat smoking related diseases, nor the tax on alcohol to provide support for alcoholics, and I don’t think that we should. It sounds to me (and maybe I am scaremongering) like a step down the road to where we only offer health services to those who have “paid” for them.
The second point about tax is that it is very difficult to draft legislation that will do exactly what you want it to do. So, in order to tax fizzy drinks, we have to define fizzy drinks in law. And then, the fizzy drink manufacturers will no doubt try to find ways to ensure that their products do not meet the legal definition. Will it be done on proportion of sugar? Level of carbonation? Fruit flavour? If recipes can be tweaked so that they fall outside the definition, you can bet your life that they will be in order to be more competitively priced on the shelves.
And tax issues aside, this feels like the thin end of a very unwieldy wedge. First fizzy drinks, then will we target sweets, chocolate, cakes, biscuits…any foodstuff with a proportion of sugar that someone (Jamie?) has deemed too high? Will this include sliced bread and bottled sauces and soups and baked beans?
Look, obesity is a serious problem. We all know that. And we also know that dieting is not the answer – the dieting industry is worth billions and more of us are fat than ever before. Prevention is way, way better than a cure – and prevention at an early age is paramount. We, as a nation, should be protecting our children from all of the health issues associated with obesity. But punitive taxes don’t feel like the answer to me. It’s one thing to tax cigarettes and alcohol – and I say that as someone who has been known to indulge in both. As an adult, if I choose to exercise my right to engage in a habit that impacts detrimentally on my health, than I pay for it. Tax on sugar though? What about all the people who are not obese, who exercise sufficient control over their calorie intake, who exercise, who live a balanced lifestyle and want to indulge in some confectionery as part of that balanced lifestyle? Why punish them? And, actually, is it the state's job to dissuade children from drinking cola? I mean, I hate to be one of those people, but when I was a child I simply wasn't allowed to have fizzy drinks unless it was the weekend - and even then, it was to be regarded as a treat rather than an everyday staple.
Education must be a big part of the answer. The more people cook from scratch, the more people understand what they are eating and what the impact of that will be on their waistline, and, quite frankly, the more emphasis placed on the many and varied health issues that are caused by obesity, hopefully, the more everyone will rethink their approach to food and nutrition. We also need to be looking at the mental side of the coin – some people are overweight as a result of (at least in part) mental health issues. Food and drink are coping mechanisms for a lot of people. I don’t think that anyone would actively choose to be fat – so surely that begs the question why are so many of getting fatter? And if the answer is that we are a nation of stressed, time poor people who rely on convenience foods and sugar rushes to get us through the day, then I don’t think that having to pay an additional 20p for a can of lemonade is going to make a discernible difference.