The chief medical officer made Gordon Brown choke on his favourite malt at the weekend with his proposal to slap a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol on booze.
Penalising the majority of moderate drinkers by making them pay more for their weekend glass of burgundy was how the Prime Minister saw it – wilfully ignoring the fact that the pre-Budget report had increased the duty on alcohol by 8 per cent. So the cost of drink is going up anyway.
Sir Liam Donaldson, accustomed to seeing his ideas knocked down, dug his heels in yesterday. Emboldened by his success with the smoking ban – proposed in two successive annual reports in 2002 and 2003, to the intense irritation of ex-smoker John Reid, who was then the Health Secretary – he means to follow it by pushing for curbs on excessive drinking.
But why stop there? Last week, a Scottish GP, Dr David Walker, proposed a tax on chocolate. The idea is not as daft as it seems. Scotland has among the highest rates of heart disease and other obesity-related conditions in the world. Fast food has been fingered as unhealthy, but chocolate has somehow “slipped under the radar”, Dr Smith argued, thanks to canny marketing that has highlighted the benefits of flavanols in the cocoa bean (as found in fruit and veg) while ignoring the fat and sugar in which it is slathered.
Dr Smith was unable to persuade his medical colleagues at a British Medical Association conference and his proposal for a choc tax was lost by two votes. Gordon Brown similarly vetoed a Downing Street proposal for a “fat tax” in 2004, when he was Chancellor – which would have meant extra VAT on burgers, chips and sweets – on the grounds that it would disproportionately fall on the poor.
Like a minimum price for alcohol, a fat tax is an idea whose time will come. In New York state, Governor David Paterson has compared the obesity epidemic with the smoking epidemic. In his state budget in December last year, Paterson proposed a tax on soft drinks – which are one of the main drivers of childhood obesity in the US.
The idea was scrapped last week owing to overwhelming opposition from New Yorkers. But other American cities already levy taxes on soft drinks and junk foods that raise a total of £500m a year. As the juggernaut of rising obesity rates rolls towards us, we will come to view the fast-food industry in much the same way that we view the tobacco industry today – as the undertaker’s friend.
A fat tax has been dismissed as a crackpot notion, worthy only of Scandinavian nanny states at their most interfering. Wags have been asking: what next, the couch potato tax on video games? (Nintendo’s Wii would be exempt.) A sofa tax?
Exhorting people to eat more greens or to climb the stairs rather than take the lift doesn’t work. Financial incentives do work. Once the battle over alcohol has been won, I predict, proposals for a fat tax will appear in a future chief medical officer’s report. Remember, you read it here first.