London (CNSNews.com) - A British think tank recommended placing a "fat tax" on the advertising of processed foods in a report released Wednesday, but free market and food industry groups say the plan would almost certainly fail.
In the study, titled "Inconvenience Food: The Struggle to Eat Well on a Low Income", the left-leaning Demos think tank said more needs to be done to improve the diets of Britain's poor.
In addition to a fat tax, which would be levied on advertisers instead of consumers, the think tank advocates the creation of a "national food council" that would "promote the interests of consumers and operate independently of food industry."
The think tank said that there is a gulf between the "food rich" and "food poor" and that families on lower incomes are less able to adequately provide children with nutritious foods.
"The government has known about this problem for five years but its response has been inadequate," said Tim Lang, co-author of the report and a government advisor on food policy. "This is a reminder to government that it has a responsibility to tackle material well-being, but also to ensure that it creates equal food opportunities for all."
But the group's conclusions were criticized by Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute, who said the proposal would restrict freedom of choice.
"Of course people should know what they're eating, but the government can't make a choice on the behalf of people," Pirie said. "This is the nanny state in one of its most offensive forms.
"It's patronizing to assume that people are more susceptible to advertising just because they're poor," he said.
Pirie also identified problems in implementing the fat tax.
"The government will have to determine who will pass judgment on individual foods," he said. "Will butter be included? How about milk? Where do you draw the line?"
A leading British food industry group, the Food and Drink Federation, also took issue with the report.
"A so-called 'fat tax' levied on specific food types would hit lower income families, be patronizing to consumers and would be a tax on choice," said Martin Patterson, the FDF's deputy director general. "A fat tax would hit lower income families who spend a higher proportion of their income on food and drink."
"Bullying and negative messages about healthy eating just don't work ... consumers will rightly feel patronized by the usual top-down messages based on the idea that they can't think for themselves and need to be taxed into weight loss," he said.
A Demos spokesman defended the proposals.
"It's not 'nannyish' to be concerned with the health and well-being of the nation's population," the spokesperson said. "We must acknowledge that there are market forces at work here. There's a commercial incentive for manufactures to target high-fat and processed foods towards low-income consumers, because these foods are cheaper to produce.
"By no means is this an attempt to interfere with people's lives," he said.
The spokesman stressed that the report only brought up the idea of a tax on advertising and not a tax on the foods themselves - but said Demos was examining the idea of a direct tax on fatty foods.
Sally Cavanagh of Sustain, an umbrella group of organizations that promote "better food and farming," said studies show there is a rising premium on healthy foods in Britain.
"Cynical food producers exploit people's concerns about healthy eating," she said.
Sustain welcomed the report and denied that a "fat tax" would be patronizing to consumers.
"What's on a family's menu is often determined by children making demands on parents" and children are particularly susceptible to advertising, Cavanagh said.
Demos also claimed that Britain's major supermarkets were focusing on "cash rich, time poor" shoppers who are prepared to pay more for healthier pre-packaged foods and neglecting customers in poor areas. Lack of facilities, especially in poor rural areas, has been a common criticism of the U.K.'s major food outlets.
A spokesman for one of Britain's largest supermarket chains, Tesco, denied the allegations.
"We provide a range of services for a range of customers," the spokesman said. "We have numerous initiatives to help poorer customers to eat healthily."
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