The justification for this new tax hinges, firstly, on the idea that obesity is a public health crisis. In fact, PHE has described obesity as an “epidemic”. It also assumes that the Government should use any means at its disposal, including the tax system, to overcome this problem.
The first of these ideas contains an implicit assumption, which in itself poses an interesting philosophical question. This is the notion that there is one objectively ‘good’ lifestyle and body shape to which all people should drive towards. For your average man, this means weighing 10.5 stone, with the average woman clocking in at 8.5 stone. From this, the NHS recommends men consume 2,500 calories per day and women 2,000 calories.
Most people take little to no notice of these recommendations. Instead, they implicitly weigh up the subjective psychological, social and monetary costs and typically reach the conclusion that such limits are far too restrictive. Currently, around a quarter of Britons are obese, but if you add in those who are overweight this figure rises to 60 per cent. Yet instead of accepting the fact that most people reject their advice, PHE has decided to use more force than ever to perpetuate their Platonic ideal of the “perfect man”.
The Sugar Tax is another embodiment of this paternalistic ideology. It uses tax (and the threat of legalised force) to manipulate the choices of consumers to the supposedly objective ends set by PHE. In most cases this end is longevity, something we reject every day of the week and knowingly too, as Christopher Snowdon sets out in his book, Killjoys. Very few people share PHE’s lofty ideals. For most of us, drinking a Coca Cola or eating a plate of chips – even if it means potentially shaving a few minutes off our lifespan – is worth the trade off.
Once we accept paternalism, it becomes far harder to reject other authoritarian policies when they emerge. For if tax can be used in principle, as the Sugar Tax has shown us, then why not extend this principle to cover all “bad” goods? This is exactly what Dr Tedstone has done, merely extending the logic of the Sugar Tax one step further with the “Pudding Tax”. And if each tax increase is designed to reduce consumption of “bad” goods further still, and if health and longevity is PHE’s only goal, then the movement of taxation can only go in one direction.
Already, PHE has called for more central planning to tackle these issues, including zoning bans on fast food outlets. Even more shockingly, they have proposed outright calorie caps on food which, as Chris Snowdon notes, would constitute “the biggest interference in the food supply by any country in peacetime”. According to PHE consultation documents, an onion bhaji could face a cap of 134, well below the content of an average product. Equally restrictive caps have been proposed for pizzas, salads and restaurant meals. In practice, such measures would amount to outright bans on certain foods as we know them, either through recipe reformulation or ‘shrinkflation’.
Supporters of the pudding tax might talk about offsetting the cost of obesity to the NHS. Yet the evidence here is relatively inconclusive. Estimates of the net cost range from the NHS’s estimate of £6.1bn to the IEA’s £2.47bn figure. Some studies have even suggested that obesity saves the taxpayer money due to the premature death of obese individuals. This evidence throws up serious questions about attempts at a Pigouvian tax – even if “Sin Taxes” like these had a solid track record of altering behaviour and reducing obesity, which they do not.
Let us accept that there is a cost – albeit probably smaller than official estimates. Would it justify a ‘Pudding Tax’? Either way, the policy sets a dangerous precedent in assuming that the existence of socialised healthcare represents a valid reason for eroding individual liberty. Following the logic behind the “Pudding Tax” to its full conclusion would result in no choice, no virtue, no freedom and no personal responsibility. The public health movement’s current direction of travel is clear – first, tax “bad” food, then regulate it, then ban it outright. We should consider this slippery slope when evaluating policies like the “Pudding Tax”.
A truly liberal society should prize consumer choice as highly as other key freedoms. Only with the freedom to choose can individuals pursue their own ends. To some, this may be trying to live healthy and long lives, for others, it will mean sacrificing greater longevity for more indulgent dining.
As the reach of the State grows, the public faces a stark choice between paternalism and freedom. Let’s hope they choose the latter.