Will a ‘fat tax’ beat obesity?

Hannah ThompsonYouGovLabs and UK Public Opinion Website Editor
October 19, 2011, 3:55 PM GMT+0

British public opinion is split over whether the introduction of a new tax on low-nutrient, high-calorie foods would be an appropriate measure to encourage healthier eating, our poll has found.

The results also show that the public both opposes the idea of obese people being forced to pay for treatment for issues caused by their weight, and the idea of barring such patients from treatment until they have lost the weight.

  • 45% of Brits would support a new tax on low-nutrient, high-fat and sugar foods where the money amassed would mean other taxes could be lowered
  • Yet 45% would oppose such a measure
  • Interestingly, half (50%) of those of a ‘higher social grade’ (the ABC1 group) would support a fat tax on unhealthy foods, compared to 39% of the ‘lower social grade’ (C2DE)
  • Over half (52%) of the public would oppose a law to make obese people pay for NHS treatment that they need because they are overweight
  • While 36% say they would support such a change
  • Similarly, more people would oppose (49%) than support (40%) a law that would allow NHS doctors to refuse to treat obese patients’ minor ailments until they lose weight

Improving health?

The results come in light of this month’s Conservative Party Conference, at which Prime Minister David Cameron broached the subject of introducing similar measures to those seen in Denmark – which is currently the only European nation to levy a ‘fat tax’ on calorie-rich foods containing more than 2.3% saturated fat.

Researchers at Oxford and Nottingham University have claimed that if unhealthy foods were subject to VAT, it could save up to 3,200 lives a year, reducing demands on the NHS through lower incidences of obesity-related issues, such as heart attacks and Type 2 diabetes.

However, Danish consumers have reportedly criticised the measure in their home country while retailers have apparently struggled with the resultant ‘excessive bureaucracy’. Critics of the measure also say that targeting saturated fat at the expense of sugar and salt is missing the point, and that all three need to be targeted.

‘Biggest health challenge’

David Cameron, however, has said that obesity is now on the brink of overtaking smoking and drinking as the ‘biggest health challenge’ facing Britain, and hasn’t ‘rule[d] anything out’ when it comes to imposing measures on unhealthy foods. He commented, ‘I am worried about the costs to the health service [and] the fact that some people are going to have shorter lives than their parents’.

See the survey details and full results (as part of our wider Sunday Times poll