Fat tax rejected
Dr Tom Marshall's ill-conceived proposal for imposing VAT on fatty foods has attracted strong criticism from his colleagues in the medical professions. The current edition of the British Medical Journal prints letters from three specialists who are clearly not impressed.
Alan Rourke, the Information Officer for the Institute of General Practice and Primary Care in Sheffield points out:
"Although Marshall acknowledges that such taxes are regressive – that is, they fall most heavily on poor people – he shoots himself in the foot by proposing to compensate poorer people by diverting the extra VAT into higher benefits … and with their spending power restored poor people will buy exactly the same foodstuffs. Also, although this system compensates those people on welfare, it does little for those people who are employed on low wages."
The Consultant Nutritionist John Stanley notes that the relationship between diet and blood cholesterol concentration is much more complex than Marshall assumes and argues that his proposal would have negative consequences:
"Foods are complex mixtures of nutrients. Whole milk contains several lipid-soluble anticancer agents that are not present in skimmed milk. In seeking to tax a food to reduce the risk of one disease Marshall may increase the risk of developing another. This illustrates the dangers of taxing a food on the basis of its content of a single nutrient."
The notion of a simple link between heart disease and fat intake is also called into question by the Swedish practioner Uffe Ravnskov:
"Marshall's proposal to treat ischaemic heart disease by fiscal measures is based on the assumption that diet determines cholesterol concentrations, which again determine the prevalence of ischaemic heart disease. These assumptions have been iterated for decades in spite of many contradictory observations and experiments … In six case-control studies of patients with ischaemic heart disease and of controls matched for sex and age, no important differences were noted between their intakes of saturated or polyunsaturated fats."
Let us now hope that before medics rush to advocate social and fiscal policies with headline-grabbing reports, they will do two things: Firstly, get their facts right and, secondly, think through the implications of such regressive policy proposals.