It may of course be a coincidence. But I suspect not, given the close timing. No sooner has Professor Terence Stephenson, speaking on behalf of 200,000 doctors, called for a ban on “junk food” brands sponsoring sports events than up pops another prominent medic, advocating blanket “fat taxes” on soft drinks and chocolates.
Will the next step, you might wonder sardonically, be for the medical profession to emulate Oliver Cromwell and call for the banning of mince pies?
The eminent health evangelist in question is Dr Mike Rayner, of Oxford University department of health. His argument follows a well-worn formula.
It starts with the unexceptionable premise. About one in four British adults is either overweight or obese. Something needs to be done about it because it’s costing the National Health Service £5bn, he tells us.
Then comes the health warning, coated in hysterical medi-rhetoric: “We are in the grip of an obesity epidemic.” (Remember the medical profession’s headless chicken performance over Bird Flu?)
And finally, the seemingly inescapable logic of a solution: “We use taxes to discourage drinking and smoking. It raises lots of money for the Treasury and prevents people from dying too early. There is now lots of evidence that manipulating food prices could promote healthy eating.”
What prescription could be more reasonable than that – for the already over-burdened British taxpayer?
As it happens, Dr Rayner – unlike Professor Stephenson – does not disclose his attitude towards advertising these noisome products. But we can infer it from past performance, and the fact that he appears to be offering flanking support to Stephenson’s earlier attack on Government policy.
The medical profession’s enthusiastic adoption of “fat taxes” seems to owe its immediate intellectual provenance to a British Journal of Nutrition study – one of whose co-authors is Professor Susan Jebb, an eminent nutrition specialist who has been the government’s main adviser on obesity since 2007. The study specifically called for a 10% fat tax on sugary drinks and full fat milk, which would, it suggested, cut consumption and prompt a switch to healthier alternatives.
Like most of these things, the idea of “fat taxes” originated in the United States. But it has gained more traction over here following adoption, in limited measure and differing degrees, by Hungary, Denmark and France. The stringent French model is, it would seem, the one favoured by (for instance) the Royal College of Physicians: “Studies have shown that following these measures, the number of overweight children in France has dropped from 18.1% in 2000 to 15.5% in 2007,” it said, late last year
The RCP, like Rayner and other obesity experts, is increasingly frustrated by the Government’s preferred strategy of behavioural “nudge”, which it considers woefully ineffectual.
It must be confessed this self-same Government has done itself no favours by – first of all – abolishing one of the principal instruments of nudge, the COI; and, secondly, by plunging itself into an entirely self-generated “heated pasty tax” crisis.
If hot pasties are to be more heavily taxed, then why should the principle not be extended to other fattening foods?
The problem with this argument, logical though it seems in its own right, is the old one of quis custodiet custodes ipsos? Who, exactly, gets to decide what is harmful to our health, and therefore punitively taxable? A few pints of Coca-Cola a year is a very different matter to a systematic diet of junk-food. The medical profession thinks it knows the answer. But it does not. In cack-handedly dealing with one form of social evil it threatens to inflict on us another: bureaucratic authoritarianism. Officious red-tape, that is, to you and me; and of course to the business community, which ultimately pays all our wages. Even those of most doctors – via the public exchequer.