Having a ‘fat tax’ to combat obesity

From ‘Combat obesity with fat tax’, 1 April 2014, ST Forum

(Dr Edmund Lam):…The obesity epidemic has become a worldwide phenomenon. Singapore has not been spared – our adult obesity rate increased from 6.9 per cent in 2004 to 10.8 per cent in 2010.

…The Health Promotion Board has done its utmost to encourage healthy eating through public education and collaboration with the food and beverage industry to provide healthier options. But gorging is still common in food centres, fast-food outlets and eat-all-you-can buffets.

In tandem with existing efforts, a “sugar” and “fat” tax of at least 20 per cent to 30 per cent ought to “shock” Singaporeans into changing their eating habits. Taxes on vices are not new – we already have high tobacco and alcohol taxes. Taxing unhealthy food, such as sugary drinks and junk food, will hopefully induce people to opt for healthier food, which needs to be cheaper than unhealthy food.

…In short, take the scourge of obesity seriously – now.

Singaporeans are getting fatter, just like people from most developed countries. In 1992, the rate of obesity was half  of where we are now, yet we’re throwing away more food, 796,000 tonnes of it in fact, just in 2013 alone. Can you imagine how much fatter we’d be if everyone actually finished all their food?

In 2011, the Danish government decided to impose a fat tax of 16 kroner or $3.76 per kg of saturated fat in products. Before the tax was implemented, the Danes behaved like how most Singaporeans would: HOARD all the fatty stuff they could get their hands on. Within a year, the controversial tax was scrapped because it was detrimental to the economy and led to loss of jobs. Moreover, Danes who had a lust for fat were crossing the border to do their grocery shopping in next door Germany. You can imagine the same situation here with Malaysia. Lesson learnt: You can’t change our eating behaviour overnight. We’ve been nursed on fats since birth through our mother’s milk, we’ll die without it, and we’ll die for it.

Dr Amy Khor stressed that there’s no scientific evidence that increasing the cost of guilty pleasure foods ever reduced the rate of obesity. Not only would it affect lower income Singaporeans, but those who consciously refrain from eating fatty stuff may overcompensate by gorging on CARBS, which add to the flab but with half the flavour and enjoyment. The slapping of monetary disincentives also undermines the ability of consumers to exercise willpower (that includes the willingness to EXERCISE). It also doesn’t help matters when it comes to preserving our hawker culture, which is centred around high-calorie, high fat (hence delicious) food.

Fast food giants are not going to take fat taxes lying down either. Even if you raise the price of a Happy Meal to exorbitant levels, all you need is a Hello Kitty promotion to get people biting the bait again. Raise Krispy Kreme doughnuts by 30%? No problem! Just run a promo 1 for 1 and all your revenue problems are solved. Gong Cha pearl topping up by 20%? Borrow a friend’s Watsons discount card! Restrict menus to serving wholemeal buns only? Well, introduce a double bacon with cheese McMuffin, dammit!

It’s easy to point a finger at food as the primary reason for our ballooning weight, and they make easy targets to tax while there are in fact other factors that may contribute to weight gain. Maybe we should have a cable TV tax because people who’re glued to the googlebox tend to put on weight. Or tax people for using the lifts and escalators instead of climbing the stairs. How about a fat tax on driving less than 1km to any destination? Conversely, in order to encourage people to lead active lifestyles, marathons should be FOC and the Government should sponsor a Brompton bike for every commuting Singaporean. From all that fat tax revenue of course.

We need to work on empowering consumers through nutritional information, not introducing artificial scarcity on fat food like how a diet is supposed to work (It doesn’t). Businesses will do anything to survive at the expense of our waistlines, like it has been for the longest time. You can’t overcome human psychology with taxation. It’s like putting bloody disgusting pictures on cigarette boxes; people still smoke that shit anyway. Even if you manage to cut down obesity levels through severe psychic starvation, you’ll probably see a corresponding increase in people getting warded in IMH for depression because every morsel of lard they chow down has become as unappetising and unfulfilling as swallowing a stack of 1 dollar coins.

If you’re going to charge $1 more for Char Kuay Teow, I’d still eat it as per normal anyway, except that instead of a Coke to go with it I’d order the other version with the artificial sweetener aspartame, which has been linked to cancer (unproven) in some studies. So, instead of getting thinner, I stay just as fat, but expose myself to unnaturally occurring chemicals because I refuse to pay extra for sugar. If I’m unsatisfied by that combination, I’d refuel during tea break by mindlessly chewing on ‘organic’ assorted nuts, misled into thinking it’s the ‘healthier choice’ when I’ve already far exceeded my daily calorie requirements compared to having my original Char Kuay Teow with normal Coke without a nut snack in the first place. I can’t possibly eat a stick of raw carrot in my workplace without being oestracised by everyone on a normal diet.

Why stop at taxing just sugar and fat then, how about going the whole hog and tax SALT too, too much of which is bad for your blood pressure and kidneys? Or caffeine? I’d might as well eat tree bark for the rest of my life.

 

 

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