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Fat tax? Fat chance.


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There’s precious little agreement on how best to tackle the scourge of obesity. Policy options put forward by various stakeholders range from soft measures that encourage businesses to act more responsibly to more draconian actions to curb the sale of foods high in salt, fat and sugar.

In the UK, the soft approach is currently holding sway. The government’s flagship Responsibility Deal puts the onus on industry to voluntarily act to improve the health profile of its products. This has undoubtedly produced some positive results, particularly around portion control with the likes of Mars and Cadbury committing to meeting a 250kcal limit for their single serve portion confectionery. However, the criticism often aimed at voluntary action is that the industry agreed targets are not ambitious enough and fail to engage the entire business community.

The carrots rather than sticks approach was recently endorsed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) whose latest guidance on maintaining a healthy weight involves lots of advice for consumers, such as reducing TV viewing and following the principles of a Mediterranean diet, but little in the way of bold, potentially paradigm-shifting actions.

What isn’t on the table, in the UK at least, is the use of fiscal measures to change behavior, which is at odds with the UK government’s pledge to reduce burdens on businesses. It’s hard to see that changing any time soon and although a change of government in 2015 could bring a shift in policy, any moves to tax junk foods or drinks are likely to meet with fierce resistance from the private sector and to be deeply unpopular with the public.

One area that receives less focus, but could have long-term potential, is addressing the social and environmental conditions that shape people’s food choices. In practice, this could mean a more progressive planning framework so that low-income people living in food ‘deserts’ have access to cheap and varied food; ensuring that that those living in social housing have access to adequate cooking facilities and utensils; or requiring that all children are taught cookery skills as part of the national curriculum.

These may seem like starry-eyed proposals but with conventional policy responses showing little sign of reversing the rise in obesity, maybe a radical approach is just what the doctor ordered.

*This blog is adapated from an article first published in November's issue of Foodservice Footprint magazine.


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