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Friday, 19 November 2010

Fat, Sugar and Happiness, a Taxing Issue

Apologies for being away from my blog for a while. Now here is a big thing. Panorama has visited the thorny subject of taxing junk food. Will this help to stem the obesity "epidemic"?

This subject has been debated in the All Party Parliamentary Obesity Group which I attend from time to time. This group has representatives from a variety of organisations such as Diabetes UK and the British Heart Foundation, as well as obesity experts and eating disorder specialists such as myself.  Thus far the group has voted against such a tax. I think we need to revisit the subject.

One of the NCFED's members (James Lamper) argues  (I think) against a fat tax on the basis that it may not change behaviour. After all, if you are addicted to chocolate because of how it gratifies you, a few pennies more may not be enough to get you eating apples instead. And chocolate/sugar addiction is a real problem, especially for women whether they are fat or thin. For some "addicted" women, the only way to manage their compulsive eating behaviour is to purge, or go on and off diets all the time. And many buy these foods for their children as an excuse to eat the food themselves; we call it "passing on the problem."

Eating behaviour is very complex. But it does not happen in a vacuum even if we look at the biological roots of cravings for fat and sugar. James rightly points out that part of our drive for high fat-sugar food is explained by the part of our brain which responds to the combinations of fats and sugars in junk food with a sense of gratification and pleasure . Our "reward brain" responds in exactly the same way to the chemicals in alcohol and drugs. In other words we get a fix from junk food which may override the effects of paying more for it.

Why do so many of us turn to instant gratification to get us through the day?  The answer may be rooted in issues that have nothing to do with food at all.  Psychologists such as Oliver James and the writer Bryan Appleyard separately have written about increasing levels of Unhappiness in our culture which give rise to a deep sense of angst and powerlessness. We trace this general Unhappiness in a culture of plenty to issues  like a breakdown in community and family cohesion, and visible and vast disparities between the super rich such as footballers and those who live an ordinary life - even if that life is reasonably comfortable. In other words, having it all is not making people Happy.

These issues of Happiness were debated with the comedian and psychotherapist Ruby Wax on This Week -November 18th and no amount of political effort, budget cuts and so on has made much of a difference. In other words, even during times of prosperity and full employment, Happiness levels are at an all time low in the UK.

It may be because of this that people reach for short term solutions to help them feel better. Food is all round us and it is readily available and costs very little.  You can have instant gratification in an instant which is much easier than going for a massage, much less painful than doing an hour on the treadmill; much less costly than going for a ride on your personal jet.  It is the availability of these foods that are part of the problem.

Without any doubt, increasing the cost of certain foods will have a big effect on national consumption and will have an effect on the national waist line. But demand may fairly inelastic among the group most at the mercy of their insatiable appetite for treats. 

So a fat tax will do us all some good but not necessarily those people who may need to control their eating most.

I admit that my blood ran cold when I listened to a sample of the overweight public give their own opinions about the junk food tax. One woman insisted that it "was not fair" to penalise the poorest members of society who are those most reliant on cheaper food. The same woman insisted that if she was to buy her children broccoli they wouldn't eat it and she was then forced to buy the kind of food (chicken nuggets presumably) that they would polish off. Jamie Oliver has done his best to educate such people that good, wholesome food can be cheap, healthy and palatable but he has a long way to go.

Perhaps money will talk louder to this very resistant group of people, and I am all in favour of it - we have to start somewhere. But it is a political hot potato that no Government may be prepared to grasp. Can you imagine an army of fish and chip owners marching on Whitehall?  A greater challenge comes from deciding which foods to tax. For example if we were to tax high fat foods we would have to tax cheese, walnuts and salmon. If we target high sugar foods, we might have to put a tax on dried fruit.

And the powerful food lobby, manufacturers and supermarket behemoths such as Tesco would fight back with all the money at their disposal. They might sell their chocolate at special prices just as they promote alcohol at less than cost price to drive up sales.  Kelly Brownell, Professor of Psychiatry and eating disorder/obesity expert has discussed these issues in his book Food Fight. Unless something drastic happens, things will get worse and the poor public doesn't have a hope.

Kelly suggests putting a heavy tax on sweetened soda drinks. The avereage British child drinks about two glassfulls a day "hardly the problem that it is made out to be" in the words of a representative of the British Soft Drinks Association.  But that is 14 teasons of sugar per child per day. So yes, it is a serious problem - add this to sugared cereals it's akin to giving a child a long acting poison.

So, lets find a way to make it happen. We aren't trying to solve the problem of compulsive eaters, food addicts and people who are more interested in eating what they like rather than being mindful of what they shovel into themselves. A tax on sweetened drinks would be a start. The rest would follow in time.

As one person put it, if all change happens on a scale from 0 to 10 the biggest step is that which is between 0 and 1.  Lets be brave and support such a tax. If you want to sign up send an email to admin@ncfed.com
stating your position.

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