The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which brings together the presidents of the Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties and so purports to represent nearly every doctor in the UK, is to lead a campaign to tackle rising levels of obesity.
One’s initial reaction might be to welcome a medical intervention aimed at combating something that kills as many as 30,000 people each year. But unfortunately, it is not a medical intervention that these doctors have planned.
According to the BBC, ‘the campaign will start by reviewing the case for fat taxes, promoting exercise, restricting food advertising and other measures. They criticised sponsorship of the Olympics by fast food firms as sending “the wrong message”.’
In other words, rather than sticking to their area of professionalism – medicine – these clinicians have decided that it is far easier to turn to coercion as a way of achieving their desired end of ensuring that we all live longer, healthier lives.
One can understand why fat taxes should appeal to both politicians and to clinicians. As Frank Ramsey taught us, the deadweight cost of raising a set sum through taxation is minimised if it is collected through a consumption tax on goods with a low elasticity of demand.
For politicians, this means the tax is relatively efficient. It also makes it hard to avoid: food in general has an extremely low elasticity of demand – no matter how tight budgets get, people tend to try to find the money to eat – and fatty foods are cheap, pleasant and popular.
As for the doctors, however, one cannot help but think that there is more than a bit of self-interest in the suggestion that the government should add a surcharge to the price of fatty foods, thus (ahem!) larding a government budget, more than a sixth of which is spent on healthcare.
The doctors are also considering limiting freedom of speech by preventing purveyors of foodstuffs from communicating freely with consumers, and telling an international corporation with whom it can do business (Good luck with that!).
What is really striking about this is that the exploratory phase of the campaign, which ‘will try to find out what works’, is not coming from a medical perspective. Rather, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has identified what it considers to be the end that society should pursue and is turning to the coercive power of the state to achieve that end.
It seems that, in pursuit of its crusade to make us thin and healthy, the medical establishment is willing to cross any boundary.