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The Adam Smith Institute Blog

A fat tax? No. Let's be free!

A British newspaper's proposal to impose a fat tax is wrongheaded.

By Sally ThompsonGuest blogger / November 14, 2010

A British newspaper has proposed a fat tax to battle obesity. David Smith of Birmingham, England, did it by himself. Weighing at one point 601 pounds, he lost 401 pounds with the help of a fitness coach and last year qualified as a gym instructor.

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The Daily Mail (my guilty reading pleasure) has written that the best way to tackle the British obesity problem is to impose a ‘fat tax’, following a report by the World Health Organisation. Not content to vilify the smokers, it seems yet another organisation is calling on the government to bully us out of our sweet treats and force us to eat more healthily.

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In my view the fat tax is a terrible idea. Government is supposed to serve society, not micromanage its eating habits. Although some of these reports give persuasive statistics on the projected reductions in premature deaths and obesity-related diseases, the fat tax would represent another nanny state intervention leaving the consumers worse off. An increase in the cost of food will ultimately impact the poor most of all, taking a greater percentage of their food budget than well-off families. Taxes should be paid by those who can afford it, but this tax would hit the poorest hardest.

Secondly, the role of taxation should never be to constrain behaviour. As Madsen argued in his book ‘Zero Base Policy’, the legitimate purpose of taxation is to fund the essential activities of government and to do so in ways that interfere as little as possible with the wealth-generating processes of the economy. Taxes shouldn’t be used to enforce the government’s moral priorities on the public, nor should they be used to penalise purveyors of junk food. After all it won’t be just the consumers who are left out of pocket, but also the kebab van man, the local takeway restaurants and small businesses who currently seek to address a consumer demand which may decline with government intervention through a fat tax.

In a free society, people should be free to eat and drink as we please. Our bodies are our property and not owned by the state. Some of my male friends seem impossibly thin whilst living on a diet of burgers and chocolate brownies, whilst others struggle to keep their weight under control due to a weakness for Starbucks and cheese. It’s not as easy as blaming the whole obesity issue on junk food, nor is it fair to make me pay out more to consume the saturated fats I so badly crave on a Friday afternoon.

The fat tax is fundamentally a tax on choice and in a free society, government should keep their nose out of our dietary affairs. If only they'd pay attention to the size of our wallets rather than that of our waistbands.

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