Taxing our favourite but unhealthy foods is thin end of cream wedge

Public health experts have declared war on cream bun eaters. And what is their weapon of choice? Education and PR? No, a tax on enjoyment

While you, dear reader, and I were busy in our different ways, you with your shoulder to the wheel of commerce, me with a pencil in my mouth and not a thought in my head, what do you suppose Dr Michael “Call me Mike” Rayner was up to?

He was seated, or possibly pacing up and down, brow furrowed, brain throbbing, somewhere among the dreaming spires of Oxford University. But he had little time to appreciate the ancient grandeur of his surroundings or quietly contemplate the mystery of existence. He was engaged on work of national importance, the work of saving lives. And what could be more important than that?

Dr Mike labours in the Department of Public Health at Oxford University, and true to his calling he frets and worries. No matter that we Britons are living longer than at any previous time in recorded history, we are still falling lamentably short of the public health ideal, that we should live on and on and on, dragging our corporal husks ever further from the magnetic pull of the tomb. We are each of us guilty in our own way. Some do not exercise with sufficient diligence, others not at all; some climb mountains, though the dangers of falling off are well documented, others persist in getting into their cars and driving into the perilous maelstrom of traffic; and some eat cream buns. It is this last group that finds itself under Dr Mike’s searching glare. Even he cannot address all the myriad ways in which we contrive not to live longer so he must perforce tackle them one at a time, and it so happens that the cream bun eaters are the subject of his latest scrutiny.

Of his methodology I know nothing and would probably understand less, but we may take it as read that there are far too many cream bun eaters in existence. Now since it would run contrary to his ethos, which is to promote public health, to eliminate the cream bun eaters by extermination, Dr Mike has to tackle the problem from another direction. He has to find ways to remove the cream bun eating while leaving the eater intact. But how? There are several possibilities, all of which were no doubt subjected to his analysis. Cream buns could be made illegal. But though banning things is an article of faith in public health circles, it is not without its drawbacks. If cream bun manufacturers were to be outlawed, they would almost certainly be driven underground with undesirable consequences in terms of racketeering, crime, and the public health dangers consequent on the consumption of adulterated buns. The lessons of the prohibition era in the US have not been forgotten.

Another possibility is to stick a health warning on buns, the more blood-curdling the better. “The Department of Health has determined that eating cream buns brings you out in spots” would be a start, to be followed by “Cream Buns cause a slow, lingering and excruciating death”.

Public education, too, might be helpful. Health experts could visit schools and hold up before the horrified gaze of the pupils grisly pictures of distended bellies, drooping buttocks and multiple chins. Then again, most youngsters get enough of that at home.

Another tactic would involve a public relations campaign aimed at stigmatising the cream bun eater, turning him or her into a social pariah. Much could be made of the fact that cream bun eaters have sticky fingers, bear unsightly greasy residues attaching to lip and chin, and that they emit climate-changing methane gas. To the objection that this last claim may not be true, it could fairly be pointed out that truth is to public relations an optional, bolt-on accessory and that the claim is no more preposterous than the hugely successful invention of passive smoking.

Dr Mike may have considered these and other options, though somehow I doubt it. When, as he has, you have served at the mast of public health for any length of time, you grow impatient with the refusal of people to behave in the ways that you have determined to be appropriate and good for them.

Very well, you mutter to yourself, if they won’t stop eating cream buns and living longer, they must damn well be made to. And so Dr Mike threw open the doors and wheeled out his lumbering deus ex machina – a hefty tax on cream buns. And not only cream buns, but any foods high in salt, fat and sugar. It would, he declared, prevent 3,200 deaths every year, give or take a death or two. Coming soon, a tax on enjoyment.

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