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The joys of pessimism

Back in November 2003, I predicted that the end result of the anti-junk-food campaign would be ‘sin taxes’:

Then on to Step 5: the levying of ‘sin taxes’ on hamburgers to ‘encourage a change of behaviour’. The money raised then pays for a lot more Food Standards Agents.

I hope I will be forgiven for this brief episode of smugness because, not only has my prediction come to pass, but it has come to pass rather more rapidly than even I had anticipated:

A Downing Street-based policy unit has proposed a plan to place a “fat tax” on junk food in an attempt to tackle the rising incidence of heart disease.

According to The Times, the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit raised the prospect of extra duty or VAT being imposed on some of the nation’s favourite foods after heart disease overtook cancer as Britain’s biggest killer, and more young people started developing diabetes.

That is what it was really all about. All the media-hype, all the hand-wringing, all the brow-furrowing and all the phoney ‘caring’. It was all an elaborate ploy by the public sector classes to get their hands on more of your hard-earned. It really is all about revenue.

I heartily recommend pessimism. It enables you to amaze your friends with your powers of prediction and bask in the satisfaction of being borne out by events.

38 comments to The joys of pessimism

  • toolkien

    Take pessimism one step further and state that all the confiscation and attempts at reconditioning will ultimately fail. Toss in a bit of cynicism that we all die of something sometime so staving off one means only gets another. Of course they’ll find a way to take $ for those as well…

  • Tim in PA

    Too many people are ignorant of the concept that when you make progress on one cause of death, another jumps up to take its place. Everyone has to die of something. But that doesn’t mean that the other cause of death is actually gorwing as a problem, it was always there but people died of something else first.

  • JayN

    When I saw this on the news this morning, along with the nonsense about warning labels on alcohol it was the first time I seriously considered emigrating. I cannot believe the continuing behaviour of this bloody Government.

    The food groups they are targeting with this are the convenience foods that people buy when they haven’t got the time, energy, inclination or ability to cook using raw ingredients. There is absolutely no way this will change peoples eating or purchasing habits. The lifetyles of consumers would have to change first. So this proposal would have two results, it would raise the cost of living for most people living in Britain and it would raise revenue for HMG. And it would fail to improve the lives of Britons or reduce the burden on the NHS or reduce the weight of a single individual.

    But the Government get to wring their hands and say their trying. AAAARRGH !

  • I recall your original posting, and I recall your original cynicism. I thought, oh very satirical. Not even Blair would stoop that low.

    How naive I was.

  • S. Weasel

    after heart disease overtook cancer as Britain’s biggest killer

    Huh. Sorry to wander off-topic, but this is an interesting datum. Heart disease has been a bigger killer than cancer in the US since forever. Since long, long before we because the world’s fattest lard-asses (yes, there really was such a time, even if nobody remembers it).

    Maybe tea helps prevent heart attacks, after all. Or maybe it’s all that chish and fips.

  • “I heartily recommend pessimism. It enables you to amaze your friends with your powers of prediction and bask in the satisfaction of being borne out by events.”

    No, please don’t. You’ll end up like a French and trust me: it really gets boring to be right on the worse, all the time.

  • bob

    If they are going to tax “fat” of “junk” food why don’t they lower or elimate the tax on “healthy” food? Make council run health or leisure centres free? Just out to make more money.

  • Much as though I get annoyed with the Kuwaiti government telling me I cannot drink alcohol or eat pork, I can’t help feeling that, on balance, one’s life is interfered with less out here. I suspect that this is going to increase over time.

  • Much as though I get annoyed with the Kuwaiti government telling me I cannot drink alcohol or eat pork, I can’t help feeling that, on balance, one’s life is interfered with less out here.

  • Think of it not as pessimism, but as good pattern recognition.

  • I’m amazed that anyone on here truly buys the notion that this is about “health”: it isn’t. This is just a measure to raise more revenue for the treasury, dressed up in paternalistic garb. I’d bet that Gordon Brown would be horrified if the new proposal actually ended up working effectively to dampen demand for “junk” food.

  • Huh. Sorry to wander off-topic, but this is an interesting datum. Heart disease has been a bigger killer than cancer in the US since forever.

    Maybe it’s because the US health care system is much better at curing cancer. I have read stories about Britons who have the cash coming over here for treatment after they were told by NHS that they were going to die.

  • Bernie Greene

    “If they are going to tax “fat” of “junk” food why don’t they lower or elimate the tax on “healthy” food? ”

    Interviewer: So this measure is entirely about concern for the health of citizens?

    Minister: Yes of course

    Interviewer: And the rumour that this is about raising revenue is untrue?

    Minister: It is beneath contempt. A dispicable idea.

    Interviewer: Then as well as penalising us for choosing to buy unhealthy foods there will also be reduced taxes on more healthier foods as an incentive?

    It’s a nice idea but I think they’ve done rather well on this one as I don’t think food is currently subject to any taxes apart from restaurant food when eaten at the restaurant.

    Whilst I completely agree with Mr Carr’s post I am somewhat amazed at the speed at which they’ve come this far. The demonising of tobacco took a lot longer by orders of magnitude.

  • I note that Butter is to have the tax levied upon it, perhaps the additional revenue that this creates will be given back as subsidy to the dairy farmers.

    As for patern recognition, I correctly predicited that I’d see a comment on this new tax on Samizdata.

  • Rob Read

    The need to control people diet is the inveitable result of the NHS effectively subsidising behaviour that is bad for your health. This stems from the fact that increasing your health risks is totally seperated from the premium for that risk (as the NHS is paid for via state coercion of the taxpayer).

    Now I cannot decide whether this is just overlooked because the NHS is a sacred cow, or if the NHS is a useful way of increasing control over other people?

  • Richard E.

    To Jay N:

    I understand your desire to emigrate, but where are you going to go? Here in the States, we’re rushing as fast as we can to catch up to the socialist countries of Europe…this idea of a “sin tax” on fat has been floated a few times here, too.

    When are we all going to stand up and say “ENOUGH!!! You have no business trying to run my life and steal my money…” ?

  • Verity

    Rob Read – You win the prize if you picked Option No 2! The NHS creates total control over citizens’ lives, because they can direct the behaviour of the citizens in order to save wastage of NHS funds paid for by … citizens! They are only accepting their responsibility to make certain the “funds” paid for by citizens are spent wisely in the treatment of citizens.

    A minor point, but one well worth mentioning, as catty comments always are … speaking of lardbutts, can anyone say ‘Gordon Brown’? Fato-o-rama! He should even get liposuction on his fat wobbly face.

    I wish Mr Michael Howard and his family and the shadow cabinet (although, Theresa May, oh, tough call..) sound health for decades to come, but if any of them has a minor ailment, I hope they will have the courage to publicly go for private treatment and explain why. And explain that everyone could have private treatment, a la francais, once the industrial-strength NHS money-sucker has had all its heads hacked off.

  • John Harrison

    Maybe tea helps prevent heart attacks, after all.
    There is some evidence for this. Polyphenols in tea help prevent cholesterol oxidising. Oxidised cholesterol is sticky and clings to artery walls causing heart disease. Smoking has the opposite effect.
    On the other hand, britons drink far less tea than they used to, coffee becoming the drink of preference for most.
    The biggest difference between the death rates from heart disease and cancer in the USA and UK is likely to be the medical system. In the UK it is quite common for leading edge cancer drugs to be refused to people dying of cancer on cost, or even safety(!) grounds.

  • Beaurocrat

    Yes, We plan to take all your money and give
    it to state workers who will interfere with your lives.

    The plan is working unopposed.

    Some minor ranting on Samizdata is ignored by the majority of the populace, as We distract them with television, booze, entitlements. We keep them scared by protecting criminals, make normal people defenseless by taking away their guns, and make them dependent on NHS by making other care unaffordable.

    What are you going to do about it? Nothing!

    You are disarmed, We control the voting process, deciding what you can vote on.

    It is a great time to be a Beaurocrat.

  • Jacob

    So the aim is to return to the good old days when cancer was the leading reason of death.

    Wouldn’t the best way to reduce heart disease be – taxing heart disease ?

  • S. Weasel

    Wouldn’t the best way to reduce heart disease be – taxing heart disease ?

    First guffaw of the day.

  • The white vans will be doing day trips to Calais buying cheap grease and selling it on the black market.Greaseasys will open up where high fat food can be consumed illicitly.It’s all depressingly familiar and doesn’t address one of the contributing factors of heart desease, stress,of which the government is one of the main providers.

  • Jacob

    BTW, the politicians may be dumb, but they are not fools. They don’t tax spinach or broccoli. They tax hamburgers. They put their tax where it generates revenue. Of course, next step is taxing spinach too, to comply with the “equal protection” clause of the Constitution.

  • Ashwin Sachdeva

    The politicians are always finding new ways to increase taxes or create new taxes… it’s something thats done possibly in every country in the world. A “fat tax” may not be the best idea though. It proposes an increased VAT on “junk” food but these politicians don’t realise that there are a lot of hard-working people out there who do consume junk food, but not in huge quanities. I do believe that a lot of us do consume some sort of junk food at one point or the other, and actually enjoy it. Levying taxes on those who aren’t really adding to the obesity statistic is just unfair. However, I do realise how such a tax may help reduce obesity, but I still think it isn’t fair on the non-obese.

  • Susan

    Let me get this straight: there’s tax on food in the UK? Even before this silly junk food tax thing?

  • Tom Robinson

    Studies like The Whitehall Study suggest that the largest risk factor for heart disease is not diet or smoking but stress. The lower a person’s job status, the less control he likely has over his daily life and the poorer his likely understanding of the world. Not understanding the world leads to making more mistakes, including mistakes which have moral implications (they lead to value conflicts). This is self-defeating and it has a negative impact upon one’s personal autonomy, which should be of concern to all Samizdatists.

    Has anyone hinted at a mechanism connecting high-level beliefs and physiological health? Dylan Evans has in his recent book about the Placebo Effect. He reckons that it operates by suppressing the initial ‘acute phase’ response of the body’s immune system (fever, inflammation, lethargy). The P.E. is triggered by the optimistic belief that you are going to get better, brought on perhaps by the reassuring sight of witchdoctor/gleaming pills (delete as appropriate). It is known that sticky blood platelets are associated with an activated acute phase. This suggests that a *chronically overactive* acute phase, caused by depression or anxiety, would lead to more blood clots and hence heart disease.

    The upshot of all this speculation is that taxing so-called junk food, and in general the poverty and pessimism associated with socialism and authoritarian state control, will increase, not reduce, the incidence of heart disease.

  • They can take my Girl Scout cookies when they pry them from my cold, dead fingers.

  • Susan- a lot of U.S. states have a sales tax on food. I know that in Indiana these taxes only applied to “ready to eat food” which in a way was a tax on junk food because it included things like potato chips, soda, and pop tarts.

  • I am libertarian and taxing on food should be illegal, but think about the benefits if it works: more room for you on your next plane trip!
    And all in all, they should focus more on dangerous products like cigarettes per se. But I do believe they should have legally obese people buy extra space for themselves and extra taxes on fatty foods–the money can go to fitness programs.

  • Guy Herbert

    It won’t fly once they figure out that in Western societies there’s a strong correlation between obesity and idleness of body and mind, social class, and socialist voting.

  • Sorry but Ithink you have missed an aspect of this. VAT is a Europe specific tax, the EU has been putting pressure on the UK to put VAT on childrens clothes, books and newspapers and foodstuffs for years. Hitherto HMG has always argued that there would be a revolt in the UK to comply with these desires. Now they have found a convieniant scapegoat to move in a more EU friendly direction.
    This is no public health matter. Phat Bob is more right than he knows – this will go into the great subsidy maw that is the EU budget.

  • Dave F

    Surely the best and fairest way would be simply to tax individuals on an avordupois basis? That is, those who eat healthy, lean and nourishing foods and remain trim will pay tax at a lower rate than those Big Mac and KFC lovin fat criminals.

    Your obesity index (weight to height ratio) could be ascertained at the start of each tax year at local clinics and certified by a Population Mass Inspectorate. Paye would be adjusted accordingly.

    What’s wrong with that then, eh?

  • In an effort to streamline the country I suggest:

    At the beginning of each year every citizen must present themselves at a convenient location (where ever the polling booths are sited for elections would work), they will be weighed, measured and blood tested, they will then be issued with an individual IP address.

    This in a single action will allow HMG to tax people on their obesity, screen for diseases and provide a simple way of tracking peoples activities on the internet.

    How could it possably fail!?

  • DanF

    Tucked away on the BBC site is this tiny admission. But I doubt the small matter of a thousand-fold discrepancy will deter the fat-taxers.

  • Alan

    Anyone for some old fashioned beef dripping spread thickly on a doorstep of white bread??


  • Matthew O'Keeffe


    I wonder if it really is all about the revenue. In other words, I wonder if anyone has done a proper costbenefit analysis of over-eating, drinking, smoking, etc. It seems to me that those of us who drop dead early – because our hearts, livers or lungs have failed us – are probably net beneficiaries to the Inland Revenue. We may consume more NHS resources while we are around but if the stats are to believed we save the DWP a fortune on pensions which would otherwise have been drawn. It is hard to do the analysis because the stats are hopelessly exaggerated I suspect. My own feeling is that the agenda is more about bossing us all around than collecting revenue.

  • John F

    Hmm. Sorry to rain on the parade (and I’m sure the regulato-bots will be trying again) but it looks like even Blair and Brown (Link)can see when something is going to stir up the herd too much.

  • Dave F. –

    Not a hot plan. You might want to have a look at this. If BMI is used as a measure, Tom Cruise, Mark McGwire and Mel Gibson would all count as obese. I realize they are Americans, but these are the only numbers I’ve got handy.