Fat tax - fat chance?

Last week, I wrote about the potential for a fat tax in Australia, in light of the news that the percentage of overweight Aussies has hit 63 per cent, and the fact that obesity costs us $56 billion a year.

The discussion has heated up in the past week, as the Danish government scrapped their tax on goods with high levels of saturated fats. The biggest topic for discussion on Channel 10's Can of Worms was about taxing fast food.

So, is Australia ready for a fat tax? I certainly hope not, and I hope we all "just say no". Here are six reasons why:

1. It's unfair.  

The Biggest Loser trainer Michelle Bridges spoke about increasing the cost of a fast food burger from $2 to $5. This is unfathomable. Businesses would close the following day, thousands would lose their jobs, and the consumer would just switch to something else that is cheap, and just as unhealthy.

The Danes realised exactly that. When consumers encountered an increased price, they chose cheaper alternatives, sometimes even driving to other countries for their shopping.

Ultimately, businesses have the right to operate and serve food (fast or slow), just as the consumer has the right to enter (or walk past) their front doors.

2. Food and cigarettes aren't the same.

Tax proponents believe food should be scrutinised just as cigarettes have been overthe past 20 years. I disagree.

From birthday cake to anniversary champagne and martinis, and from freshly caught salmon to colourful vegetables, we should celebrate food. Food is one of the greatest pleasures in life.

On the other hand, cigarettes contain more than 4000 chemicals, including hydrogen cyanide, which is used in prison executions.

The difference is obvious, and the cigarette tax is a whole different ball game.

3. It's a logistical nightmare.

I can't imagine how many government officials it would take to decide which fast-food company or foods to target first. MSG? Salt? Sugar? Lawsuits would soon follow.

And if you taxed fast food at restaurants, you would have to tax the same kinds of foods in the supermarket aisles. This exercise alone would make it impossible to implement.

4. It is economically flawed.

Tax proponents declare that a tax could be used to subsidise the cost of healthy food. Yes, that could be done. But on day one, when a tax goes into place and an unhealthy person's grocery bill goes up 20 per cent because their regular items have increased, that doesn't mean on day one that that person will be educated and ultimately shop in the fresh or "healthy" food section.  It would take months (maybe years) for the shift to healthy foods to be realised, if at all. Meanwhile, prices would increase to an unfair level.

5. Many healthy foods are already cheaper.

As a snack, tap water and an apple is food served fast, and it only cost me 50 cents today, whereas a fizzy drink and crisps costs more than $5 at the convenience store.

A barbecued chook with a healthy spinach, pear, parmesan and lemon-and-olive-oil salad feeds a family of four for less than $5 a head, whereas many fast-food value meals cost a heck of a lot more than that.

A smoker who consumes half a pack a day (worth about $10), and drinks, on average, half a bottle of wine a night (worth, say $7.50) is spending well over $100 a week.

Get it? Healthy food is cheaper food when you make the right choices, and going without junk food can save heaps.

It's not a government issue – you and your belly is your business. It's up to you as a grown man or woman (or as a mother and father, for your children's sake) to be healthy.

I used to be a chubby guy, but I made a change. I didn't look at my gut then put my hands up to the government and say "What can you do for me?" I took a good, hard look at myself in the mirror, then laced up my Nikes and went for a run. I shopped in the fresh section of the supermarket, put down the fizzy drinks and drank less booze.

And guess what? My body changed because I made consistent, healthy choices.

The real question we need to be discussing in this country as 63 per cent of inhabitants are overweight is one I can't really answer: Why do millions of Australians not care about their health enough to do something about it?

6. Increased taxes won't work - incentives to be healthy will.

Tax breaks on gym memberships and for people who have "zero hospital days" in a year; and work bonuses for few sick days – incentives such as these will encourage a healthier society, not punish individuals for being unhealthy through increased taxes. Incentives are the answer.

The "Dear Government, what should we do about obesity?” question is a simple one to answer. We should make better choices in the kitchen, and we should start exercising. Your choices will move the supply-and-demand curves for the better – junk food will go away, and we'll have a happier and healthier Australia.

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