At first sight it seemed a good idea. A tax on all those metropolitan types and media folk who witter on about “lifestyle”. Five pounds a witter seemed about right, the proceeds to be paid into a central fund from which those of us who despise the “style and review” pages could draw our beer money.
But it wasn’t like that at all. The so-called “lifestyle penalty” proposed by Stuart Marples, chief executive of the Institute of Healthcare Management and a former NHS trust chief executive, was dreamt up with risk-takers in mind, the idea being to deter them from doing dangerous things or, failing that, to provide insurance cover for their treatment when things go wrong.
He says: “I am forced to take out insurance to drive my car, but for the very dangerous habit of smoking I don’t have to take out any. Likewise, I am obliged to wear a crash helmet to drive my scooter at 20mph, but I can wear a stupid hat and go at 50mph down a ski slope.”
You can tell he’s a former NHS manager. Only someone with the proven skill to oversee the most inefficient and clumsily run health service in Europe, possibly the Western world, could have come up with such an impractical and daft notion.
Has Marples not heard of the problems confronting an insurance industry that is slowly sinking in a quagmire of compensation and litigation? It’s already almost impossible for smokers to get life cover. What does he imagine the premiums would be if they wanted health cover? And, if he thinks the Government would provide protection through some kind of Whitehall administered scheme, has he not heard of Gordon Brown? Can he really see the Chancellor agreeing to a publicly run, loss-making scheme for the benefit of an endless queue of claimants, many of them victims of a chimerical ailment called passive smoking? And what of smokers who wilfully or otherwise neglect to pay the lifestyle tariff? Are they to be denied treatment? Uninsured drivers are treated for their injuries; it would be inequitable to treat tobacco users differently. But if smokers are to receive treatment regardless of whether or not they have paid the tax, what is the incentive for their coughing up, so to speak? In other words, how is the levy to be enforced? Would it become unlawful to sell tobacco to people who could not produce a valid certificate of lifestyle cover?
In common with many bureaucrats, Marples has an authoritarian cast of mind. He approves of compulsory crash helmets for motor cyclists (though if he really rides his scooter at 20mph he sounds a bit of a menace) and would like to see a similar law applied to downhill skiers. Why not a silly hat tax, which would at least have the merit of raising many millions from people who wear baseball caps, with a surcharge for those who wear them back to front?
But to appreciate fully the sheer impracticality of his proposals one has to take into account his suggestion that the “lifestyle penalty” should be imposed on anyone who takes part in dangerous activities. Where has he been living for the past 20 years? Is he not aware that there is virtually no activity known to man that has not been found to be dangerous, indeed life threatening?
To cite just a few examples: getting angry is a dangerous pastime – it can release fatty acids into the blood stream and bring on a heart attack; flying can cause deep vein thrombosis; mobile phones have been linked to cancer; electricity pylons may cause leukaemia; DIY causes 3,000 accidents a year; 164 people are taken to hospital every day with “packaging injuries”, that is, injuries caused by opening packages; repeated text messaging can damage muscles and cause repetitive strain injury; sunscreens may contain chemicals that could trigger premature puberty in children; alcohol affects your eyesight, breasts, pancreas, kidneys, liver, waistline, heart, brain, skin, bones, and fertility; breast implants have been linked to brain and lung cancer; the plastic coating on the inside of tinned food cans has been linked to testicular and prostate cancer; summer thunderstorms bring on asthma attacks; picnics and barbecues are a source of the food bug compylobacter; banknotes carry bacteria that can cause significant infection; and chemicals in hair dye carry a risk of cancer.
Hang on a minute, there may be something in this tax after all. It has long been the goal of every government to find new and ingenious ways to wring money out of the electorate, often under the pretext of doing them good. Tobacco is heavily taxed, we are told, to deter people from smoking. Petrol duty is enormous just to protect the environment. So it would be wholly consistent to tax people for flying, using mobile phones, opening parcels, eating canned food, having barbecues, putting up shelves, handling money, getting caught in storms, washing their hair, and going too near to electricity pylons. Does the idea of paying those taxes make you angry? It does? Thank you, that will be another &£50 anger tax. Ching!
The best news of all for the Treasury comes from the Cancer Research Campaign, whose study concluded that incidence of the disease is rising because of – guess what? – modern lifestyle. What better reason for taxing it?