JANET STREET-PORTER: We DON’T need to tax the fat

Yes, we’re a nation of fatties many of whom are waddling towards an early grave.

But should those of us who CAN exercise self-control be penalised by a tax on unhealthy food?

In fact well-upholstered Government food advisor Henry Dimbleby doesn’t look like a stranger to the odd moment of self-indulgence himself.

Dimbleby is a former food writer-turned-management consultant-turned co-founder of the food chain Leon. How does that career work if you’re NOT a well-connected Old Etonian with a famous name by the way?

And he’s married to a writer on the Tory party’s favourite newspaper, the Daily Telegraph.

Should those of us who CAN exercise self-control be penalised by a tax on unhealthy food? (Stock image)

Should those of us who CAN exercise self-control be penalised by a tax on unhealthy food? (Stock image)

Should those of us who CAN exercise self-control be penalised by a tax on unhealthy food? (Stock image)

Well-upholstered Government food advisor Henry Dimbleby doesn't look like a stranger to the odd moment of self-indulgence himself

Well-upholstered Government food advisor Henry Dimbleby doesn't look like a stranger to the odd moment of self-indulgence himself

Well-upholstered Government food advisor Henry Dimbleby doesn’t look like a stranger to the odd moment of self-indulgence himself

He’s long campaigned for healthier eating and better education about food and was appointed our national ‘Food Tsar’ by the Tories in 2019.

This week, he unveiled his grandly titled ‘National Food Strategy’, advocating a tax of £3 per kilo on sugar and £6 a kilo on salt, both of which are used extensively to produce snacks, junk food and takeaways.

Critics swiftly pointed out that many guilty pleasures (enjoyed by everyone, not just the overweight) would skyrocket in price. Chocolate biscuits could cost 24p a packet more, Mars bars an extra 9p and pots of jam could rise by 63p.

Marie Antoinette once said ‘let them eat cake’ but if Mr Dimbleby had his way, instead of Victoria Sponges and Millionaire chocolate shortbread, we’d be snacking on carrots, cauliflower and celery. EEK!

Advocating no-carbs, sensible eating and saying no to treats is a hard sell to the British public at the best of times but when you’re talking to people who have been cooped up at home for months, unable to travel to the sun or cuddle their ageing mums and dads, these proposals have a doomed air of unreality.

It may have seemed a no-brainer on paper (the 2018 fizzy drinks tax led to a sugar reduction of 44%) but yesterday the snack tax shelf-life proved to be shorter than that of an Iceland jumbo arctic roll left out in the sun.

Within a few hours of Dimble-big-bum proudly unveiling his proposals, Boris Johnson pointed them towards the waste disposal unit, announcing he was ‘not attracted’ to taxes which could unfairly impact on ‘hard working people’.

Clearly, something must be done to stop us eating ourselves to death, if only to stop the NHS going bankrupt. 

Obesity-related illness is said to cost the economy a whopping £74 billion a year and is the cause of 64,000 deaths. Over half those aged over forty-five in the UK are said to have health conditions related to obesity, primarily type 2 diabetes, and joint failure.

How did we get here? Looking back at family photos, none of my working-class family were overweight in the 1950’s. We ate a simple diet with fresh cooked evening meals.

Takeaways were non-existent. Fish and Chips an occasional treat. Yet, we ate white bread, put sugar in our teas and slathered butter on our toast. Mum made chocolate sponge cakes for tea at the weekends.

Clearly, something must be done to stop us eating ourselves to death, if only to stop the NHS going bankrupt. (Stock image)

Clearly, something must be done to stop us eating ourselves to death, if only to stop the NHS going bankrupt. (Stock image)

Clearly, something must be done to stop us eating ourselves to death, if only to stop the NHS going bankrupt. (Stock image)

But we also walked further than today’s adults, cycled, played games in the street in the evenings and PE was compulsory at school.

Sadly, the nation lost its collective will-power several decades ago, around the time we said goodbye to stockings, the World Cup, the Royal Yacht Brittania, and most of our major steel works and ship builders.

The British working classes went wobbly the moment sofas were made as deep as the family bed. And the marital bed expanded from a modest cuddly Queen size up to Super-King. Everything in our modern world from portion-sizes to bars of chocolate is bigger, including us

Now we’re Wally the Walrus dimensions, especially our backsides and the social group I grew up in now constitute the most unhealthy and overweight group in the UK.

But do we want to be punished and coerced back into line by a posh bloke who went to the same school as David Cameron, Boris Johnson and half the Tory party big wigs? The answer must be a resounding no.

Critics swiftly pointed out that many guilty pleasures (enjoyed by everyone, not just the overweight) would skyrocket in price. (Stock image)

Critics swiftly pointed out that many guilty pleasures (enjoyed by everyone, not just the overweight) would skyrocket in price. (Stock image)

Critics swiftly pointed out that many guilty pleasures (enjoyed by everyone, not just the overweight) would skyrocket in price. (Stock image)

Most people are a puzzling combination of sensible and stupid. There are days when we eat properly, days when we gorge on trash, and days when we decide not to eat for at least 2 hours and call it ‘intermittent fasting’. Ha ha.

Eating continuously, as in holding a cup of coffee in your hand as you walk anywhere, has become the norm. People eat on trains and buses, while they are shopping and while they are talking on their phones.

Tons of excess food gets stuffed into our faces – it’s about quantity not quality. But there are still plenty of people who do eat sensibly, exercise will-power and maintain a normal weight- around half the population. So, let’s not penalise them with extra taxes when they are perfectly entitled to eat crap occasionally.

The only way to deal with poor diet is to teach all children from their early years that making good nutritious food can be fun and is cheaper than a takeaway.

Behaviour can only be changed by making cookery fun and realising it is important as maths or English.

The rot started when the Labour government turned cookery into a ghastly subject called ‘food technology’. Making shepherd’s pie was replace with lessons on how to design a sandwich wrapper. Lessons were sponsored by supermarkets – talk about conflict of interests!

Since then, it has been a struggle to get cooking back on the national curriculum.

For several years, my partner taught cookery at a Pupil Referral Unit for kids with emotional and behavioural disorders in a deprived area of London. Visiting their homes, he found many lacked a kitchen table and kids had never used cutlery or eaten off a real plate.

Their mothers (and the odd dad) worked all hours to keep the family clothed and housed. Food was just fuel, normally ready-meals, or takeaways.

Within a few months of training these boys could make pasta, bake bread and cakes, and cook simple meals they could take home to feed their siblings. They could also pass their knowledge onto their mums and show them how to cook.

Taxing sweets and crisps is ignoring the biggest injustice in our society – lack of decent education. To be fair to Dimbleby, he wants some of the money from his sugar and salt tax to go towards cookery lessons and better school meals – which should be compulsory.

Teaching our children how to cook will ensure that the next generation can manage their health better. Money should be prioritised and ring-fenced, not reliant on a Mickey Mouse tax.

We also need to show people that fresh veg is NOT expensive rather than handing out free carrots and celery via prescription from your GP (a Dimbleby proposal).

A bag of carrots costs less than 35 pence, and a cauliflower 45p.

The trouble is most obese people would not know what to do with them. What we need is to give them the skills to make them as scrumptious as bag of bacon-flavoured crisps.

But what else can we expect from a government to whom telling us when and where we can eat, drink, work, play and travel has become second nature since Covid came along?

Telling us WHAT we’re allowed to eat and drink is the next natural extension.

Life is a series of choices, and along with freedom of speech, the freedom to gorge and stuff oneself until we’re sick is a human right no government should seek to control.

Otherwise, we might as well be living in North Korea. Oh wait . . .

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