Hugh Reilly: Will must be found to impose fat tax

Food addicts should be treated the same way as those with other addictions, not pandered to, writes Hugh Reilly

Being overweight is down to the individual, as no-one else puts food in their mouth. Picture: AFP
Being overweight is down to the individual, as no-one else puts food in their mouth. Picture: AFP

Decades ago, there were tell-tale signs that one was putting on a few pounds. For example, when a belt that had admirably performed its function of holding up one’s trousers started to not so much pinch, more garrotte one’s abdominal wall, it was time to examine one’s eating habits.

Today, it seems a person only accepts having something of a weight-gain problem when neighbours nominate him for a Channel 5 freak show or when the mode of exiting his house is via a bedroom window swaddled inside an emergency service’s hoist.

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According to a recent study, almost 75 per cent of men will be overweight or obese by 2030. This research will come as no surprise to anyone who has suffered the discomfiture of walking down Buchanan Street and catching sight of grossly obese men waddling Glasgow’s, erm, Style Mile. Despite displaying the aesthetic appearance of lugubrious leopard seals that have discovered penguin-eating to be very morish, these engorged specimens of mankind seem a contented lot.

The reason for their happiness is straightforward – modern society tolerates the idea of being fat. Indeed, describing a chubby individual as being “fat” is perceived to be not politically correct; come to think of it, “chubby” is probably off the smorgasbord of appropriate nomenclature to call someone whose bloated body shape eerily resembles that of a Taggart murder victim found washed up on Portobello beach.

Rather than tell the overweight to put down the fork and get a bloody grip on their dietary regime, society prefers to adapt itself to suit the needs of those forever chomping at the bit for bigger morsels.

Across Scotland, buffet restaurants are booming. In these grazing sheds, the herds of salivating endomorphs wander from one heated food container to another, armed with an outsize plate and cutlery that can be nimbly operated at twice the speed of normal humans. In these emporiums, “All You Can Eat” is seen as a challenge, not an offer.

Encouraged by their apologists, fat folk perceive themselves as victims. Evil airline companies are guilty of podginess-prejudice by making seats too small to house the Sumo-sized posteriors of certain passengers.

I once had the misfortune of being allocated a seat next to a Greek woman who made the Michelin Man seem a pitiable anorexic. I watched incredulously as she attempted to clunk-click her safety belt. After much exertion, she finally yielded to the fact that this task was mission impossible. She tetchily demanded a stewardess lend assistance to securing her body to a bolted-down section of the fuselage. The stewardess produced a seatbelt extension strap that barely managed to accommodate the customer’s girth. For the next five hours, like a land-lubbing King Canute, I failed to reverse the tide of the slow-moving tsunami of flab that swamped over the armrest and inundated my personal space.

In the 1980s, poor old Demis Roussos and his ilk had to head off to a poncho emporium to cover up their large forms. Nowadays, things are easier thanks to the textile industry producing a clothing line for the burgeoning plump-plus demographic. We’ve gone from the traditional sizes of S, M and L to S, M, L, XL, XXL and XXXL. Half-starved sewing machinists labouring in Bangladeshi sweatshops must look with bewilderment at the quantity of material they are stitching together to supply the no longer niche market of curvy westerners.

By dint of the inertia that comes with piling on the pounds, our supermarket aisles now resemble dodgem car corridors as mobility scooters silently hurtle up and down, hunting for 3-for-2 offers, eat-seeking missiles if you will. Once the preserve of the genuinely disabled, it’s now commonplace to see such battery-powered vehicles hijacked by the lardy lazy. In department stores, harassed mums saddled with babies and buggies compete for space in lifts with obese individuals who believe their portly frames grant them entitlement to use the facility.

In terms of public opprobrium, unlike other people with addictions, food addicts get off lightly. They are told that they are beautiful inside and that others have no right to judge them. In my view, it’s illogical that parents afflicted with a drug or alcohol problem face the prospect of having their kids carted off by social services if the children are, through neglect, malnourished, yet no action is taken against parents who allow their child to become obese.

Where does responsibility lie for the obesity epidemic? I’d argue that the individual is largely responsible for any weight-related ill-health. Schools educate youngsters regarding what constitutes a healthy diet. Further, all schools provide a healthy option meal and curtail the availability of chips. If folk choose to eat poor quality foodstuffs, they must live, or more correctly, die, with the consequences.

Through various agencies, successive governments have striven to improve what we eat. In deprived areas, government has subsidised the selling of fresh fruit and veg to ensure our most impoverished citizens have access to a five-a-day diet. But politicians should do more, say critics. Perhaps they should, but our elected representatives walk a thin line when legislating for better health. A few weeks ago, Ed Miliband was accused of bidding to create a “nanny state” when he hinted that a future Labour administration would crack down on foodstuffs containing too much sugar, salt or fat.

It depresses me that there is no political will to impose a “fat-tax” on junk food; to the manufacturers of takeaway stodge and processed scran, this is microwaved manna from heaven. Evidence shows there is a correlation between price and consumption – it’s the very reason why most politicians support high excise duties on tobacco and minimum pricing on alcohol.

True, extra duty may not deter the morbidly obese who seem determined to eat themselves into an early grave, but it could recalibrate the lives of those inclined to be a tad overpeckish at the dinner table. Lest a government be accused of simply generating yet another stealth tax, the initiative could be tax neutral by using the duty raised to lower the cost of healthy foodstuffs.

Sadly, there is fat chance of the obesity problem being taken seriously.