Does a fat tax help?

Kerala's Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front government has taken the fight against fat to the next level. It has announced a 14.5 per cent "fat tax" on burgers, pizzas, donuts, tacos, sandwiches and pasta served in branded restaurants and fast food chains like McDonald's, Burger King and Pizza Hut.

The move has invited sharp reactions from outlets selling these food items. It has also triggered a debate on whether or not a fat tax acts as a deterrent and prevents people from eating unhealthy, fattening junk food. Not everybody agrees that it does.

Shikha Sharma, the founder of Delhi-based Nutri-Health, feels that the Kerala government has made too many assumptions in understanding obesity. "First, it has assumed that a tax will act as a deterrent. And second, it has assumed that taxing only certain food items will be enough to help bring down obesity," she says.

While burgers, pizzas and so on have been taxed, Indian food items like samosa, jalebi, poori and kachori, which are also fattening, have been left out. "Do they really think that only fast-food served by multinational chains causes obesity?" Sharma asks.

Experts feel that the idea has not been scientifically thought out. For example, when Denmark introduced the world's first ever fat tax in 2011, it taxed all foods with a saturated fat content of above 2.3 per cent, including cheese, butter, oil, milk and meat. It's another story that the country scrapped the tax in 2013 because it failed to solve the problem of obesity.

The Kerala government has also left beverages high in sugar content out of the tax purview, unlike Hungary that had taxed foods high in sugar, salt and fat like soft drinks, chocolate bars and chips. Mexico too taxes sugary drinks, breakfast cereals and sweets and calls it the "sin tax". Similarly, France has a "sin tax" on carbonated drinks like colas.

Kerala does need a plan to fight obesity considering that, according to the National Family Health Survey, the state has the second-highest rate of childhood obesity in the country. Adults in the state also do not fare any better.

Kerala's fat tax targets the middle income group and the rich, but not the common man. So, a 14.5 per cent tax would mean that a Rs 100 burger would cost Rs 114.5. That, say experts, isn't steep enough to make someone from that social status to forego a burger. A study conducted on the fat tax in Mexico showed that while there was marked reduction in the consumption levels of low and medium socio-economic status households after the tax was imposed, it did not change the consumption patterns in high socio-economic status households.

Pradeep Chowbey, chairman, Max Institute of Minimal Access, Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, Saket, New Delhi, is, however, optimistic. "Agreed, this will in no way impact the sale of these food items. Not even one burger will sell less because of this tax," he says. "But when parents know that this particular food item is branded 'fat', they will discourage their children from having it."

Chowbey calls it the very first baby step towards curbing obesity. "This creates a situation where people will think that the food item they are consuming has something which is fattening."

He would like to have the words "fat tax" printed in capital letters and in bold on the bill. If this is constantly hammered into the mind, it will, in the long run, make a difference, he says.

The state hopes to earn Rs 10 crore a year from the tax. "That is not a lot of money," says Chowbey, "so the intention is clearly to reinforce the thought that what you are consuming is unhealthy."

Tobacco activists, who have for years been asking for higher tax on tobacco products, say such schemes work only when even the cheapest product in the category is taxed - such as the bidi, which most state governments do not tax heavily or do not tax at all.

Clearly, the Kerala government has just found a soft target to tax, says Sharma. The fight against obesity, she adds, can be fought better if healthier food options are made easily accessible to people - on street sides, near schools and also at fancy eating places.

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