Taxation of fat, an idea that has been kicked around on both sides of the Atlantic for a few years, has suddenly been elevated to the forefront of government consciousness in the United Kingdom. The premise, which is dubious at best, is that a fat tax might make the population healthier and happier, and simultaneously reduce the financial burden of healthcare. Here I examine this compulsion to legislate the populace towards health. Can it possibly be good for us?


The confusion of a mixed message. Until recently, health propaganda focused on the evil of saturated fats in particular, not on fats in general. The motive has been to reduce the number of strokes and heart attacks by lowering cholesterol levels, rather than to combat obesity. So most nutritionists have been busily urging the public to cut their intake of foods that are high in saturated fats, such...


Can taxation be used as a tool for behavior management? The UK government claims success in reducing smoking through its policy of progressive real term tax increases. It is an arguable case though, because changes in social attitudes may be responsible, and in any case smoking has been on the rise recently among some groups, such as young women.


A slippery target. At least a tax on smoking has logic, because smoking causes harm on a cumulative basis. But this is not the case for fatty foods. There is little inherently harmful, even in junk foods such as chips and cookies. The harm is caused by the habit of consumption, which in turn is stimulated by advertising, both subliminal and overt. Perhaps the advertising of fatty foods should be taxed, with the proceeds used to fund campaigns promoting exercise and more healthful eating? Well, the UK's Food and Drink Federation, a group representing producers, has attempted to preempt any such legislation through its Food Fitness Programme. This promotes supposedly healthier eating, but at the same time insists that overly hysterical reactions should be avoided.


An even more slippery target. Can fat, or the advertising of it, be accurately targeted? Some foods that have a very high fat content, such as avocados, are considered healthful, not the source of weight problems. This precludes a simple tax based purely on fat content: Unlike the treatment of alcohol levels in beverages, the fat tax would have to deal with foods on a case-by-case basis. Lawyers must be licking their lips, as this would be an arbitrary and contentious process.


Why fats? Why do carbohydrates escape censure? It is true that weight for weight, fats contain twice as many calories as carbohydrates, but it is still possible to become obese from eating excessive sugar, quite apart from the risk of hypoglycemic problems. So on this count, a fat tax could send the wrong message by appearing to condone a high-sugar diet.

And then of course, the proponents of the Atkins Diet argue that a high-fat diet is the best recipe for slimming. Would people who sign up for Atkins regimes gain exemption from any fat tax?


We aren't clones. We all have different metabolisms, different urges, different genetics. Just as an alcoholic does not necessarily drink a huge amount, so an obese person may not actually eat much. In some people attempts to lose weight trigger a dramatic fall in metabolic rate, making the task almost impossible even with considerable will power.


Why should fat people be stigmatized as weak-willed and unhealthy? There was a time when a gradual accumulation of mass towards middle age signified high status and opulence. And there are benefits to bulk. London pub owner Andy Fordham, weighing in at 30 stones (420 pounds), became world darts champion early in 2004. His size was considered an asset, serving to dampen undesirable twitches in the arm in the same way concrete stabilizes a centrifuge.

All in all, the fat tax has fat chance of being effective.

Philip J. Hunter phunter@the-scientist.com

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