Calls for a chocolate tax in war on obesity

Carrying extra: The WHO also estimates that 42 million children under the age of five are obese.

Time for a tax on sugary foods? Obesity kills millions of people each year. After introducing a tax on soft drinks, ministers in the UK are considering extending it to sweets and chocolate.

It has been called a “time bomb”, an “epidemic” and “the new smoking”. Every year obesity kills an estimated 2.8 million people globally. In most countries, more people die from being overweight or obese than from being underweight.

The government is due to release its new obesity strategy soon, which will reportedly state that over the past year the food industry has failed to meet its target of reducing the sugar content of foods purchased in the UK by 5%.

According to The Sunday Times, the strategy will push for a 20% reduction in sugar in foods commonly eaten by children, adding: “We will not shy away from further action, including mandatory and fiscal levers, if industry is failing to face up to the scale of the problem.”

Campaigners also want to restrict when adverts for junk food can be aired on television, and ban cartoon characters that promote unhealthy foods.

Global obesity has more than doubled since 1980. In 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight and over 600 million were obese, partly because increasing affluence in both the developed and developing world have made overeating easier.

There has been a long-term global decline in physical activity, as jobs have become more sedentary and domestic lives less physical. Officials also say obesity is linked to poor education and economic deprivation.

In 2014, the McKinsey global institute estimated that around $2 trillion was spent annually on tackling obesity — more than on terrorism, armed violence and war combined.

What can be done? The UK government and several US cities have introduced levies on the soft drinks industry.

McKinsey has also called for better nutritional labelling, healthier school food and public health campaigns to raise awareness of health issues.

Such ideas have generated a backlash from campaigners against the “nanny state” and some industry representatives.

So is a major crackdown worthwhile?

Sweeten the deal

This is a major health crisis, say advocates, and it only worsens when people’s choices expand. A laissez-faire approach is cruel: it encourages people to eat and drink themselves to an early grave, meanwhile damaging their quality of life. Prevention is better than cure. A dose of paternalism would do us all some good — and save some money in the process.

How patronising, say libertarians. Restrictions will drive up prices for those trying to make ends meet. We all need food, so you cannot restrict it as much as cigarettes or alcohol. Anti-obesity campaigners are indulging in a moral panic, fuelled by sneering at the poor and an arrogant, vain belief that everyone should be as thin as they are.

You Decide

  1. Which worries you more: ill health or being patronised?
  2. Should governments get tough on obesity?

Activities

  1. Work in fours. Write and act out two 30-second adverts for TV. One should call for a crackdown on obesity; the other should campaign against it. What message would you want each to give?
  2. Find out more about a public health advert or campaign from history (for example, an anti-smoking advert). Prepare a short presentation to your class. What was its message? Was it justified? How effective was it?

Some People Say...

“It is not the government’s job to tell us what is best for us.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
People are overweight or obese when they have too much fat and it poses a risk to their health. Globally these problems have risen significantly, including among children, over decades. Studies show that obesity is linked to access to unhealthy food, poverty and inadequate education.
What do we not know?
Does government action reduce obesity? Does it make people poorer? Anti-sugar campaigners say global evidence vindicates government action — in Mexico, sugar consumption fell by 12% in a year after a 10% tax was introduced. Their opponents say consumption has fallen in countries such as the US and the UK before either introduced anti-sugar measures. And they say crackdowns fuel the problem they seek to solve, because they hit the poor hardest.

Word Watch

2.8 million
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Aired on television
The plan calls for restrictions on the airing of junk food adverts on television before 9pm.
Cartoon characters
Characters such as Tony the Tiger and the Milky Bar Kid will have to be retired, or be used to promote healthier products and eating habits.
Doubled
According to the WHO.
Decline
A 2012 study by academics at the University of North Carolina looked at changes in physical activities in several countries in different parts of the globe. It found there had been a “shift away from movement”, partly because of technology such as the television.
Cities
Berkeley in California pioneered a sugary drinks tax in 2014. In November 2016, four more cities voted to introduce a similar tax. The US federal government also gives states money to spend on promoting public health — for example, by funding salad bars in schools.
Laissez-faire
Where those in authority leave things alone and play a hands-off role.
Paternalism
Where those in charge act like a traditional father figure, and set rules which they think are in people’s best interests.

Subjects

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