Once an ardent opponent of sin taxes, Boris Johnson has now experienced a mighty change of heart. We don’t yet know what his new strategy will look like but one thing is clear: more nannying won’t solve Britain’s obesity problem.
In April 2018, as part of the government’s childhood obesity strategy, the UK government introduced a sugar tax to reduce sugar consumption. A year later, it was announced that plain packaging of crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks was also on the agenda.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic and excessive weight having been recognised as a risk factor, the discussion around obesity and ways to tackle it has been spurred into motion again. The lockdown made things even worse. Almost half of Brits – 47 per cent – have put on weight since lockdown began in March.
The UK government has been using various types of interventions to solve the rising national rates of obesity, and more of those are seemingly on the way. However, a substantial societal shift can only be achieved through a partnership between government and other actors such as business, civil society organisations and advocacy groups and education systems.
Challenging times require innovative solutions. In order to drive down obesity, we have to review our incentives. Longevity and a healthy lifestyle is an excellent motivation in itself but monetary incentives might turn out to be more successful.
Obesity is a societal issue, so fighting it requires a multi-faceted approach. Nowadays, companies go out of their way to improve the wellbeing of their employees by providing gyms, yoga classes, company-wide fitness programs and so on.
Many American firms are now incentivising their employees to become healthier in order to reduce overall insurance costs for those in pooled insurance programs. In the UK, if companies were given tax relief when its provisions allow obesity rates among its employees to decrease, it is likely they would take up the burden to solve this social and public health issue themselves.
The results could be astounding provided that transparency is guaranteed. In a similar fashion, the government could cooperate with the IT sector to create an app where citizens could track their lifestyle, earn rewards for eating healthy food and exercising more in the form of income tax reduction upon reaching specific milestones.
One example of such an idea is the Sweatcoin app which converts steps into a currency that can be spent on various goods and services. The UK could succeed in solving one of the world’s most pressing issues if it decides to embrace innovation.
Lastly, we should also focus on educating students about sugar consumption, and generally about health to ensure they are able to make informed and responsible consumer decisions.
Daily calorie intake in the UK is also decreasing with each decade. It is exercise that many people are lacking, and we should educate consumers about this fact. In particular, education should draw the attention of consumers to sugar so that consumers don’t make these consumption choices by inertia but take time to balance out the present and future costs and benefits.
Coronavirus has spurred a great deal of fear, especially around our health and wellbeing. It is, however, key to remember that that government interventionism is expensive, short-sighted and ignores the complexity of the consumer decision-making process. Education and innovation are a smarter way forward.