Set a minimum calorie price

Setting a minimum price as a mechanism to reduce consumption of particular substances is fraught with difficulty.

That lesson has been well-learned in Scotland during the extensive debate over the SNP Government’s proposal to set a minimum price per unit of alcohol, which was rejected by opposition MSPs this week.

The concern over the harmful effects of increased consumption of alcohol, which prompted the proposal, is mirrored by worry about rates of obesity, diabetes and cancer resulting from the toxic combination of poor diet, overeating and a lack of exercise.

The messages about healthy eating, although widely understood, are struggling against the British fondness for snacks and sweets. Even people who try to eat a balanced diet, however, find their calorie count mounting from lack of time or inclination to prepare meals from scratch. This has resulted in a shift towards packaged and part-prepared foods that are usually richer in fats, sugars or carbohydrates and, therefore, calories than the raw ingredients.

The suggestion from Dr Daniel Chandler, a public health registrar in Dumfries and Galloway, for a minimum price per calorie is reassuring evidence that new ways to tackle the intransigent problem of an overweight population continue to be sought.

However, a minimum calorie price would be even more difficult to implement than a minimum price for alcohol. If levied on all foods, it would be a highly regressive measure disproportionately affecting people on low incomes. Its fatal flaw is that it would not discriminate between nutritious food which is high in calories and sugar-dense sweets and drinks.

That makes it a political non-starter. No politician will campaign to raise the price of cheese, that staple of pensioners’ and children’s lunches.

A more effective way of harnessing the power of price in determining what we buy would be to raise the cost of specific calorie-rich items that are not basic foods. The principle has already been conceded with the duty levied on alcohol and tobacco and the VAT regime which includes ice-cream, confectionery and crisps but excludes foodstuffs.

The Danish government took a step further this year with a “fat tax” which increased the rate on ice-cream, chocolate, sweets and soft-drinks by 25% while reducing the rate on sugar-free soft drinks. Higher taxes will be extended gradually to margarine, oils, animal fats and high-fat dairy products by 2019. The effects of these measures, introduced specifically to reduce the prevalence of a broad range of illnesses and improve life expectancy, will be worth watching. They have the merit of reinforcing the message that, ultimately, choice rests with the consumer.

To exercise that choice effectively, however, consumers need information. The fat, sugar and salt content, as well as the calorie count, should be much more clearly and consistently displayed on all packaging – with a minimum print size.

News Source: Herald Scotland

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