Will Fat Tax save the world ?


It sounds impolite, but the South-Indian state of Kerala has become the first in Asia to impose a “fat tax” on people with unhealthy appetites.

The obesity tax has been imposed basically on American fast foods, and every time you sit down to chomp down on fried chicken, pizza or burger, you will wince as you will have to pay out about 14.5 per cent tax for indulging in these unwholesome foods.

The desperate measure is because Kerala has a large number of fat children and India has 20 million obese women, who huff and puff in kitchens and in malls across the country.

It’s ironic that so many people are obese in a country where a large number of children are malnourished and underweight.

The tax is also to try and stop the American ‘evil’ plan to take over the world after turning people into softies and out-of-shape round people, with its processed foods that come to you on a plate before you can say, “I am hungry”.

Incidentally, Kerala is not the first to impose a “fat tax”. Hungary, a country that rhymes with hungry, five years ago had started taxing soft drinks, salty snacks and energy drinks. Finland taxes candy, chocolate and ice cream; France is already taxing beverages with added sugar and artificial sweeteners and the European Union has found that increasing taxes is an effective way to curb consumption of unhealthy foods.

Now I hear that Bihar, the eastern state of India, is planning to tax ‘samosa’, a spiced, deep-fried, potato-stuffed patty, the comfort food that is popular during tea time and during the rainy season when people tend to turn romantic and reach for a ‘samosa’.

While fat tax may be an effective way to cut down the growing obesity rates in Europe, it may not work in India and particularly in the state of Kerala where everyone has grown attached to their cuisine, specially to a dish called ‘beef fry’.

The other day I walked into an Indian organic food store and the salesman tried to sell me organic ghee (clarified butter). “It’s a healthy alternative,” he said.

It is also customary for my friends who return from their vacations from Kerala to bring back bags of banana chips and jackfruit fried in coconut oil. It is supposed to be a healthy alternative to fried snacks and ‘savouries’ that Indians munch on and which pack artery-busting cholesterol.

Coconut oil, until recently, had received a bad press because it has 90 per cent saturated fat. The industry has now found that coconut oil also gives HDL (the good cholesterol) a nudge up. Still, doctors caution against using coconut oil in cooking as it is not as healthy as vegetable oil or olive oil and its uncertain how it affects heart health.

I am not sure how the “fat tax” will help people in Kerala reduce weight, because a majority of them are working overseas, particularly in the Arab Gulf states, which themselves are grappling with the issue of obesity.

For instance, about 47 per cent of the UAE population is designated as overweight, mainly because of sedentary lifestyle and due to the consumption of easily available junk food. The Ministry of Health and Prevention is now tackling obesity in children as many grow into adults with diabetes, an offshoot of being unhealthy and overweight.

It’s going to take a while, but I predict that eating a burger in public will be as shameful as smoking in the future and there will be designated areas in restaurants where people addicted to fast food will have to sit and eat, away from the eyes of the hungry, but healthy members of society.

And there will be a thriving black market in ‘samosa’s and chips and the most popular elective in medical colleges will be bariatric surgery.

Mahmood Saberi is a freelance journalist based in Dubai.