"The new tax also raises the question of personal choice. Should state take a proactive role in controlling people's food preferences or influence them?"
Among the never-ending list of taxes, India on Friday saw a new entrant: 'fat tax'. The newly elected LDF government in Kerala in its first budget speech surprised everyone by announcing a whopping 14.5 per cent tax on junk food served at high-end fast food restaurants.
What's more, ready-to-eat packaged food like chapattis will also be levied a 5 per cent tax.
Kerala, thus, became the first state in the country to impose fat tax to check the problem of obesity.
No two ways about it that obesity is on the rise in Kerala. The state ranks second in the country—the first place goes to Punjab—in child obesity, according to the National Health Survey report last year.
Another study in 2010 found that 12 per cent of the high school students in Thiruvananthapuram city corporation were overweight, while 6.3 per cent were obese.
Will imposing tax on food high in saturated fats help reduce obesity? Yes, argues a 2016 study in The BMJ that claims that a high tax on unhealthy food and drinks may help slow the rising obesity. The study also cites a decline in the number of smokers in the US following a sharp tax increase on cigarettes in 2009.
Denmark and France had also taken the tax route to deal with obesity. Britain this year imposed tax on soft drinks with high sugar content. In fact, the World Health Organization in 2003 recommended fat tax to check obesity.
But, will imposing tax on fast food at high-end chains check obesity in Kerala? Does fast food consumption alone account for the state's obesity problem? According to reports, a haphazard routine and lack of physical activity also greatly contribute to the growing obesity, at least in children.
Industry estimates show that the number of outlets of the organised fast food chains such as McDonalds and Dominos among others are not more than 60 in Kerala. The tax also allows the eateries to pass on the extra burden to the consumer, thereby risking losing them.
The Kerala government’s move has received mixed response. While some argue it is a good measure to fight obesity, it will indeed come as a punishment even for those who, follow a healthy lifestyle and diet, indulge in junk food only occasionally.
On the other hand, the Kerala government’s fat tax, which is touted to be largely a symbolic gesture to highlight the state's growing obesity problem, is likely to inspire other states to replicate it.
The new tax also raises the question of personal choice. Should state take a proactive role in controlling people's food preferences or influence them? Aren't there better ways to effectively fight obesity?
Finance Minister Thomas Isaac on Friday while reading out the budget said that the government estimated to raise Rs 10 crore from the fat tax. One way of adding value to this initiative would be to use this money to educate people about nutrition and spread awareness about the importance of a healthy lifestyle. The fat tax alone may not be enough.