Sunday 18 February 2018

It's open season on the obese – the minority it's still OK to kick around

Everybody needs a big fat whipping boy. Health minister Dr James Reilly is to blame for most of his own troubles, but he has also become a convenient punchbag for wider voter anger at a blundering Government. Reilly would only be human, therefore, if he exhaled a sigh of momentary relief at last week's emergence of a new public enemy number one: the chubster.

Research conducted by University College Cork has revealed that the overweight and obese cost the State €1.1bn every year. The direct healthcare outlay is almost €400m – a figure equivalent to the current overspend in Reilly's department. Indirect costs, like absenteeism and lost productivity, account for the remaining €700m. Munching through scarce resources as though the national purse were stuffed with chocolate coins, the jelly bellies are eating us out of house and home.

Days before a much-feared Budget, and the expected introduction of a fat tax, the UCC study was a gift for ministers. The obese have become the minority it's okay to despise – a widespread problem in several senses. Consequently, the Government can earn kudos as well as extra revenue by slapping punitive levies on the massive behinds of these fatheaded wastrels.

However, in terms of their stated function as a deterrent to the purchase of unhealthy food, fat taxes are a fraud. Listen to politicians talk about the financial returns of these surcharges and you'll hear predictions based on existing consumer patterns – even advocates admit the taxes will have little impact on public behaviour. But what they will do is help distract attention from the most pernicious root-cause of the obesity epidemic: poverty.

It's one of the peculiar paradoxes of modern life that poor people are more likely to be fat than thin. Unemployment and deprivation degrade every aspect of existence, from what you eat to the purpose served by eating.

As the UCC report makes clear, Ireland's waistline inflation has been brought about by social trends that have incubated for two decades. However, the difficulty of tackling the crisis has been greatly exacerbated by the economic setbacks of the past four years. The further cuts and taxes anticipated in Wednesday's Budget will make a bad situation worse.

Another survey published last week shows that recession has already turned healthy eating into a luxury that fewer can afford. The research commissioned by the Healthy Food for All alliance demonstrates that the cost of high-fat foods is falling whereas healthier options are getting more expensive.

It's now 10 times cheaper to get your calories from processed food than from fresh produce, lean meat or fish.

Fat taxes will discourage some individuals from buying unhealthy food some of the time but they will do nothing to make healthy food more affordable. Nor will they alter the psychological relationship between poor people and bad diet. Those with less money are less likely to spend their limited cash on nutritional fare. Unable to afford other treats, growing numbers will opt for something tasty and, usually, trashy.

The Government's much-vaunted crusade against obesity would carry more weight if its own economic policies were not part of the problem. Fat people are a soft target for ministerial censure. As the beleaguered Reilly would no doubt agree, however, scapegoat-roasting is political comfort food, a quick fix providing no lasting sustenance.

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