Obesity is a political issue which won’t be fixed with a tax

The latest calls for a tax on sugary drinks and food is beginning to gather momentum, after a select committee report and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has put pressure on the Government to use a 20% levy in order to tackle the obesity epidemic.

The coverage of the report has focused around whether, first of all a sugar tax would be effective and also whether such a tax would simply be punishing poorer families.

Other countries such as Mexico have imposed a tax in recent years on sugary soft drinks and although there was initially a significant drop in consumption of the taxed products, sales are reportedly returning to levels similar to before the tax was introduced.

Obviously it’s hard to compare different countries like for like, as there are a multitude of factors which would determine the success of such a tax. For instance, one of the key reasons that soft drink consumption is so high in Mexico, is down to the scarcity of free, safe drinking water, while this wouldn’t pose a problem in the UK.

But an even bigger question is whether a sugar tax would penalise the poorest families. There is an argument that pricing people out of being able to buy certain products will help solve the obesity crisis we currently face.

The Health & Social Care Information Centre have stated that there is a considerable gap in the numbers of obese children attending schools in the most deprived and the least deprived areas of the UK. Essentially, the wealthier you are, the less likely your children are to be overweight or obese. When leaving primary school about one quarter of children from poorer households are overweight, almost double the figure of children from more affluent families.

Many have pointed the finger at parents who are too lazy or uneducated to make the right nutritional choices for themselves and their children, as being the cause of the obesity crisis.

But this report and the resulting discussion about obesity, highlight the fact that food, poverty and obesity are an interlinked, highly political issue.

In modern Britain, food represents more than what fills our bellies, it can be aspirational, a way of life for some and a marker of our standing in society.

In the debates about obesity and health, the focus is often on the snack and soft drinks industries as being the root causes of the problem. What is often ignored is the foods that make up our three meals a day.

The majority of the discussion that has taken place in the media and in parliament has focused on the junk food and fast food culture and has largely omitted to discuss the foodstuffs that make up the biggest part of our diet.

While it is clear that eating wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and good quality proteins form a large part of a healthy diet, the cost of these are often out of reach for many ordinary families. Healthy, good quality ingredients can often just be too expensive for many to afford.

On the other hand, carbohydrate rich foods and cheap processed meat products are extremely cheap and can stretch a long way on a small budget.

Add to that, the fact that the cheaper products are also usually quicker and easier to prepare than making a meal from scratch. It is easy to forget that not everyone either enjoys cooking or has the time or energy to spend hours in the kitchen cooking each evening.

If you have three or four hungry mouths to feed and you’ve spent a long day working, as well as running a household, convenience food is one of the ways of clawing some of the day back.

So while a tax on sugary products might be one part of the solution, it cannot be the only one. While a tax on sugary products like sweets and soft drinks may lead to a reduction in consumption of these items, the bigger issue remains. In our country, those who are both time and cash poor will continue to buy the cheaper, lower quality, higher calorie foods that make up the bulk of their main meals.

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