Views | Your obesity hurts the government

Views | Your obesity hurts the government

OK, it’s official now. Denmark has imposed a “fat tax". By a large majority, the Danish parliament passed a resolution to impose a new tax on fatty foods. Danes must, the lawmakers have resolved, eat healthier. The new tax of 16 kroner ($2.90) per kg of saturated fat in a product will be levied on foods like butter, milk, cheese, pizza, oils and meat. The grand aim is to raise the average life expectancy of Danes—which has fallen below the international average of 79 years—by three years over the next 10 years.

Does one smell Big Brother here?

I am not fat by any yardstick—in fact, I have a profound dislike for the act of eating, it is time wasted, in my opinion, and I’ll be the first to line up for the much-promised pill that assuages your hunger and gives you all the nutrients you need. But I like people who love to eat and never feel guilty about it. I think it is a fundamental right, though not enshrined in any Constitution, for any human being to be fat, and be happy about it. Some years ago, I happened to spend a week in New Orleans, and the local papers were filled with reports on the burning issue that was facing the Louisiana legislature: whether to pass a law to extend the length of public benches in parks: the law was 150 years old, and Americans had grown fatter since then, a bench meant for two people could now accommodate only one comfortably. I hope they made the benches longer, for it would have been a grave injustice otherwise.

Of course, the Americans are ahead of us, and have already invented a term and triggered a movement, however small and tangential: the bias they’re fighting against is “sizeism". Not surprising, because the Americans are the fattest of all: 30.6 per cent of them are obese, followed by Mexico (24.2 per cent) and the UK (23 per cent). Denmark is No 22, with 9.5 per cent. But then, policywise, the Scandinavians are always ahead of the curve.

I love fat people. Of course, the Danish legislators posit a fine economic argument. Unhealthy people cost the economy more, and the common taxpayer has to pay for the health system. Studies by the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US have found that as obesity rates increased from 18.3 per cent of Americans in 1998 to 25 per cent in 2006, the cost of providing treatment for those patients’ weight-driven problems increased healthcare spending by $40 billion a year. That’s a hefty sum.

But should any government have the right to decide what the nation should eat? A opinion poll found 28.9 per cent Americans supporting a fat tax “wholeheartedly", but 29.01 per cent said “absolutely not". But the largest number of respondents (30.59 per cent) said that they would support a fat tax “only if it subsidized healthy food".

Meanwhile, a new study by Yale University finds that the overweight and obese feel more heavily discriminated against now than they did a decade ago. The discrimination occurs in the context of common life experiences—applying to college, renting or buying a home, applying for a bank loan or dealing with police, or how they are treated in restaurants. The Yale researchers say that it’s up to society to mandate legal protections for those who are overweight, just as laws protect people from discrimination by race, gender, disability and age.

But that would require enormous sensitivity, for sizeism isn’t always explicit. It involves the perpetuation of stereotypes and attitudes which support those stereotypes, such as the idea that fat people are lazy, that fat people eat too much and don’t exercise enough, that overweight people often contract diseases which render some jobs dangerous for themselves and others. Sizeism is so ingrained in our cultures that most often, it’s noticed only by the sufferers.

Proponents of the fat acceptance movement in the US argue that anti-fat stigma and aggressive diet promotion have led to an increase in psychological and physiological problems among fat people. They believe health to be independent of body weight, and argue that the health risks of obesity have been exaggerated or misrepresented, and used as cover for cultural and aesthetic prejudices against fat. Their slogan: “a diet is a cure that doesn’t work for a disease that doesn’t exist".

Now the Danes have gone and done it with a killjoy measure that could set a precedent. Why can’t they spend their time more fruitfully, like their Swedish neighbours, writing fine crime thrillers?