Do we have a duty to shun fatty foods or have our health authorities unfairly declared war on cakes and crisps? Richard Klein offers his personal - and perhaps controversial - opinion on the medical debate surrounding our eating habits.
The British Medical Association (BMA) is discussing a proposal to charge 17.5% VAT on high-fat foods such as biscuits, cakes and processed meals. A doctors' conference last week discussed a motion by Dr Martin Breach which said: "Given the epidemic of obesity related disease in the UK, this conference strongly supports the concept of a tax on saturated fats, in effect a VAT on fat." This is an outrage.
Chew fat and spit tax?
Not only is the BMA seeking to impose on my pleasure "for my own good," it doesn't have a single good word to say about the beauty and savour of fat. It utterly ignores the fact that for most of human history, fat has been praised for its virtues and celebrated for its beauty.
Dr. Breach doesn't seem to know that the word "fat" comes from "vat", a Teutonic word derived from "fassen", which means to hold or contain, like a vessel, particularly a precious one containing baptismal water. Or like a tub. Everything that used to come in a tub was blessed, like fat or wine or beer. Everything tubby is fat.
For most of human history fat denoted the well supplied: fat purses, fat cheeses. Fat clay is pure, fat wine is full-bodied, fat land yields abundant returns. A fat position is a desirable one, a fat kitchen is an affluent one, and a fat kingdom is where we live.
A VAT on fat is, thus, a fat on fat, so to speak. It leads one to reflect that fat tends to proliferate. The more our doctors and health officials urge the nation to diet and exercise the more obese we become.
The fattest nation in the world, where public health has become the new police, America grows fatter by the day. The UK is catching up.
Is pleasure the point of life?
At no time do our doctors, obsessed with epidemiological risk, ever consider the Epicurean principle, that health is not the aim in life, only a means to pleasure - its sine qua non, without which no pleasure is possible.
It is hard to feel pleasure when you're sick from over-consuming and worn out from debauchery. So in the interest of good health, the Epicurean practices moderation in all his habits and indulges his tastes without extravagance. But the priority of pleasure over health is never called into question.
Our minders generally stigmatise such a view as hedonism. But hedonism has a long and respectable philosophical history.
In the strictest sense, it is that system of ethical belief that considers pleasure to be inherently good. It is not incompatible with moderation and well-being, as the great 4th-Century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus demonstrated, inscribing the hedonist creed over the entry to his garden: "Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure."
There are hedonists who even go so far as to think that pleasure may actually be good for your health.
The latest plan afoot to tax fat is of a piece with the concurrent proposal to require healthy behaviour as a condition of receiving medical care.
Does doctor know best when it comes to haggis?
Behind both proposals lie the arrogant assumptions of medical science, which have assumed the right to legislate our health and with it to oppress our pleasures.
No one objects to medical science warning us about epidemiological risks, but translating them into constraints on individual behaviour is a stark violation of our freedom to pursue happiness.
Why should the government seek to compel me to limit my consumption of fish and chips, or haggis, or foie gras? Fat is one of the best things in life. Life is about risk. It's not how long you live that counts, it's how you commit suicide.
Some of your comments so far:
My partner, who's researched tax psychology for years, believes that 'vice taxation' means the vices carry on, but people divert money from necessities. I tend to agree. But if we're going down this road, wouldn't it make more sense to tax sitting down all day? Inactivity does the real damange.
David Harrison, UK
I am horrified to hear this proposal of a tax on fat. It is becoming clearer that fat is not the cause of obesity, the cause is carbohydrates. A balanced diet of protein, fat and low carbohydrate, will in many cases help people loose weight, as it has for me. I would suggest a tax on high carbohydrate foods eg. potatoes, rice, pasta, breakfast cereals and sugar. These are the killers, not fat.
I don't think that heart disease is particularly pleasurable...
Max Hammond, UK
I'm 6 ft tall and weigh over 19 stone. Am I obese? Perhaps by some definitions, but I regularly walk eight miles and have just come back from a Lake District trip involving walks up Scafell, Pillar and High Stile. If I can do that and enjoy good food, wine and beer then I'm getting the balance right. Perhaps I could be healthier by being lighter but I'd reduce my pleasure balance because I'd need to cut out beer and cheese! I'd rather maintain the balance, thank you, so don't tax, explain!
Nigel Scott, England
Having been overweight for the biggest part of my life, one of my darest wishes is to be thin. As a severely disabled wheelchair user this is not easy! I rarely eat fatty foods anyway, but anything that encourages good healthy choices is not a bad thing. What people will complain about however, is that their right to choose for themselves is being taken away. Something even God Himself does not do!
Patricia Davies, UK
I can't believe what I am reading. Does this mean that if i spread butter too thick on my toast in a morning i have to post a cheque to Mr Blair? Sorry, but this is really time for the govenment to butt out.
As a constant dieter, I know the temptation of high fat foods only too well. But like cigarettes, people will still pay the bit extra. What the government should do is reduce the price of healthy foods, especially fresh fruit and veg. The high cost of these products, compared to high fat 'convenience' foods, is one major reason why people do not eat healthily.
David Priestley, UK
I'm 21 stone and find it impossible to find food that is easy to prepare, low in fat, low in carbs and affordable. If food manufacturers can mass produce cakes and sweets, which we all know are bad for us, why can they not make genuinely healthy foods available to us at reasonable prices? Because they know that we are prepared to pay high prices to be slim. Some of us cannot afford that luxury! I'm all for a tax on fatty foods, maybe they will see that its really not what we're after.
Will an obesity tax do a fat lot of good, or should we pay more for our paunch? Can a life of denial still be pleasurable or is existence nothing without a few pies? Send your comments using the form below.
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