Britain’s obesity crisis is nothing new. It’s been splashed across our front pages and television screens for years. Governments of all stripes have tried endless wellbeing strategies, get fit programmes, and healthy eating schemes to get us to tighten our belts. Once again, our fitness (or rather, lack of) has been thrust into the spotlight by the pandemic, with even the prime minister himself admitting the need to shed a few pounds.
So the nation’s hopes of getting into shape lie with one man. But instead of an inventive new method to make positive change, the central diktat of Food Tsar Henry Dimbleby’s second food strategy is to punish shoppers with a £6/kilo tax on salt and £3/kilo tax on sugar. The proposal could see households face an extra £172 per year on their shopping bills, almost three times the average weekly shop. Foods affected by the levy, including store cupboard staples such as jam, ketchup and cereals, could increase in price by almost 50 per cent.
The poorest 10 per cent already pay over half of their income in taxes. Adding another tax on staple foods is just going to hammer household budgets even more. In the shadow of the covid recession, squeezing hardworking families to breaking point and with the tax burden already at a 70 year high, this is exactly the wrong time to be introducing new taxes. Imagine the public outrage were food companies to excessively increase their prices, hitting the poorest consumers the hardest. It would be labelled a greedy profit making exercise. So why is the government granted special dispensation to do the same?
This isn’t just about pricing the poorest out of enjoyable products that the rich can still afford. It’s the regressive view that people can’t be trusted to make the ‘right’ decisions about how to live their lives, and therefore need government bans to protect and guide them.
But changing a nation’s eating habits is not as straightforward as Dimbleby presumes. Parents buy the same products for their children because they know they’ll eat them. Workers eat cereal because it takes little to no preparation in the morning. Britain wouldn’t be Britain without the staple ingredient of our traditional puddings: jam. The reason these foods remain so prominent in our diets is not that they are cheaper than fruit and veg, it’s because they are tasty, convenient, and part of our lifestyles.
The food we eat is woven into the fabric of our lives so much so we plan our days around it. Meeting your friends for a burger, buying an ice cream on the beach, or enjoying a chocolate bar at the cinema. We know they’re not good for us, but still treat ourselves now and again because the pleasure is worth the potential cost. This tax doesn’t just punish shoppers in the supermarket, but diners in restaurants and takeaway lovers too. For small businesses, it will be an administrative nightmare working out the levels salt and sugar is in each of their dishes, after one of the worst years for hospitality on record.
Encouraging people to eat healthily should be a positive endeavour, and there are some good suggestions in the report like better cooking lessons for children. But £5 billion of extra taxes is the equivalent of taking the carrot and using it as the stick. And besides, I’ve yet to eat a vegetable that tastes worse after salt.