The major argument for such taxes is a fairly simple one – unhealthy eating equals obesity equals disease equals massive healthcare bills. In short, so the argument goes, people who take care to eat their five-a-day, do their three half-hour exercise sessions per week, floss daily and all the other things that Western governments promote as beneficial for health are paying the price in taxes for other people’s propensity to eat doughnuts, sit on the couch and watch The Simpsons. Fair enough. But taxing ‘unhealthy’ foods just isn’t the answer.
The first major problem is with the adjectives ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’. We have grown accustomed to associate certain foods with one or other of these labels, often resulting in blatant contradictions. Hamburgers – unhealthy. Orange juice – healthy. But wait – hamburgers – high in protein – healthy vs. orange juice – high in sugar – unhealthy. Come again? Aha, but hamburgers – high in saturated fat – unhealthy vs. orange juice – high in vitamins and antioxidants – healthy. But wait, what about a 100% beefburger with salad and in a multigrain bun eaten once per week – healthy vs. cheap Orange juice from concentrate drunk outside meal times and sloshed around the mouth to coat the teeth in sugar – unhealthy. Oh calamity, calamity! The point is that taxing food on the grounds of it being healthy or unhealthy is an impossible task, as the Danes found out with their tax on saturated fats some of which, such as those in coconut milk for example, are generally regarded as a beneficial ingredient of a balanced diet. Furthermore, nutrition often seems to more resemble an art than a science – one moment wine gives you cancer, the next it helps prevent it. It’s a constantly evolving minefield, making the whole healthy/unhealthy dichotomy very difficult to nail and thus legislation based on it rather nonsensical.
But there seems to be a greater, more fundamental problem too. Does the state really have a right to tell me what I can and can’t put into my mouth? Sure, eating unhealthily will make one more likely to need to use state medical care but so does a whole host of other things, like riding your bike, playing rugby, even cooking hot food. The obvious comparison to be made is with smoking and drug abuse but really this is fallacious. We all need calories – even a diet consisting of solely Mars bars and coke is certainly better than one of no food at all. Hell, I even once met someone who “doesn’t like water”. Hence even the policy of gently nudging people away from smoking that is working well in Britain at the moment seems undesirable in the case of food. As a fundamental requirement for life, it is best left alone. Indeed, the Danes recently scrapped their tax – looks like meat’s back on the menu boys!