UK Doctors Push For 'Fat Tax'

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

London ( - Despite a defeat at a public health conference this week, a group of doctors is planning to push for endorsement of a "fat tax" by one of Britain's leading medical bodies.

The proposal by health workers in the St. Helens and Knowsley district, near Liverpool, could affect the official policy of the British Medical Association (BMA).

Fat tax proponents want Britain's 17.5 percent sales or value added tax (VAT) to be extended to fatty foods. Groceries and most foods other than take-out meals are currently exempt from the tax.

On Tuesday, the BMA's public health committee voted against the tax after it was argued that the levy would disproportionately affect poor people, who spend a higher percentage of their income on food.

But Dr. Martin Breach, a member of the BMA's public health committee and a strong supporter of the proposal, said the issue wasn't given a fair hearing. A second vote will be held next month at the BMA's annual conference.

Breach said he would be on hand to personally argue for the tax, while work commitments kept him away from the public health meeting.

"The revenue raised by such a tax could be used to subsidize healthy alternatives for the poor," he said. "Money could also be used for education, starting in schools and working all the way up to the adult population."

"If there's revenue being produced, there's many different aspects that can be tackled," he said.

Breach said fat is used as "padding" in processed foods and said that "the consumer is being completely ripped off."

He said that about 20 percent of men and 25 percent of women in Britain could be classified as obese and that the state-run National Health Service spends $2.5 billion on cardiovascular drugs, including $1 billion on drugs designed to reduce cholesterol.

"It seems absurd that my colleagues and I are prescribing these strong medications to the population when the population is being force-fed these harmful saturated fats," Breach said.
The idea was dismissed by the food industry and pro-food choice groups. The Food and Drink Federation said that consumers would inevitably perceive the tax as a large price increase.

"It could have a serious financial effect on lower income families," the federation said in a statement.

The group also warned that it could increase inflation and make it harder for families to eat varied diets.

"Introducing VAT on food would be bad for the food and drink industry which is one of the U.K.'s largest manufacturing sectors," the federation said.

Simon Clark, a libertarian campaigner and director of the smoking choice group FOREST, said that when it comes to regulation and taxation "food is the new tobacco."

"It's wrong to use taxation as a form of social engineering," he said. "It would be very much politicians telling us how to live our lives and what to eat."

Clark warned that a tax could backfire and said that rhetoric against fatty foods could extend throughout society.

"What starts off as a seemingly small thing ... encourages employers to start dictating their employees' lifestyles," he said.

The vote at the BMA's annual conference will take place on July 1. Meanwhile, the British government announced last week that it was considering making obese people and smokers sign pledges to lose weight or give up cigarettes in order to obtain free treatment by the NHS.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.