Kerala has introduced a fat tax, while the Delhi High Court asked Delhi to issue directions to schools on junk food. But can this tax money be used to reduce the prices of fruits and veggies?
By Shobha John
Does the thought of a hot, succulent pizza oozing with cheese make your mouth water? Does the sight of sweets dripping with sugar syrup melt your resolve not to indulge in such sinful delights? And does a sip of a sugary drink leave you thirsting for more? Watch out, you could be a candidate for diabetes, BP, heart problems or obesity.
But then, you are not alone. India is facing a pandemic of these life-style diseases—it has the third largest number of obese people in the world and studies say that the 30 million obese people it has presently could climb to 75 million by 2025. (See Box titled Unhealthy Nation) In fact, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) accounted for 38 million deaths worldwide in 2012, and this number is expected to rise to 52 million by 2030. In India, NCDs account for 60 percent of all deaths and 44 percent of disability-adjusted life-years lost in 2011.
Dr Anoop Misra, chairman, Fortis-C-DOC Centre of Excellence for Diabetes, Metabolic Diseases and Endocrinology, told India Legal that Indian diets are high in carbohydrates, sugars, saturated and trans fats. Proteins are deficient, especially in a vegetarian diet which has limited sources such as dairy products, nuts, lentils, whole grains and soy.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Kerala had an innovative idea to introduce a “fat tax” in its budget recently, the first state to do so. But a lot more needs to be done, say health experts. The fat tax was a 14.5 percent levy on junk food served in chain restaurants.
State Finance Minister Thomas Isaac told India Legal that it was aimed at discouraging consumption of junk foods such as pizzas, burgers, doughnuts and tacos (see interview, “Our unhealthy food will also be taxed”). “This was a move to bring in healthy eating habits as people in Kerala have also started eating junk food and rejecting traditional food,” Isaac said.
While the tax is aimed at multinational food chains, the fact remains that Indian snacks are also very unhealthy and should be brought under the ambit of this new tax. There have also been increasing calls for a soda tax on all sugar sweetened beverages such as aerated drinks, packaged fruit juices and sports and energy drinks. Misra said: “The average can (300 ml) of sugar-sweetened soda gives about 150 calories, almost all of which is from sugar, usually high-fructose corn syrup. That’s equivalent to 7-8 teaspoons of table sugar (35-40 gm). One can of a soft drunk daily without cutting calories elsewhere can make one gain up to five pounds a year.”
Misra, who did several studies on the diet of Delhi’s school kids along with his colleague, Dr Seema Gulati, said that imposing tax on junk food is one step towards healthy living. He said studies have shown that 20 percent sugar sweetened beverage tax is anticipated to reduce overweight and obesity prevalence by three percent and Type 2 diabetes incidence by 1.6 percent among Indian subpopulations over a period of seven years.
The concept of a fat tax is not new. It has been tried out in other countries with varying success. Japan was the first country to impose a “metabo law” to fight obesity in 2008 and it helped cut it by 3.5 percent. In 2011, Denmark introduced a fat tax on certain products for the same reason but it backfired as people started buying the same food from across the border. The tax was withdrawn after 15 months! Hungary taxes foods high in sugar, salt and fat, while Mexico taxes sugary drinks, breakfast cereals and sweets. In the US, Philadelphia was the first US city to introduce a soda tax. And, according to BBC, there are just two countries where Coca-Cola cannot be bought or sold officially—Cuba and North Korea. There is also a proposal in the UK to tax soda which is expected to come into effect in April 2018.
In India too, the fight against junk food has been going on for some time. In March this year, the Delhi government asked schools to consider banning junk food in its canteens and instead, serve fresh and healthy food. They were also directed to create awareness about the ill-effects of foods high in fat, sugar and salt.
This move came after the Delhi High Court had last year directed the Delhi government and the Central Board of Secondary Education to consider issuing directions to schools to implement the guidelines even before the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India framed rules under the Food Safety and Standards Act. The Court was hearing a PIL filed by Uday Foundation, an NGO, to curb the sale of junk food among children in Delhi.
Bihar too has taken steps to fight obesity. In January, it imposed a 13.5 percent value added tax on popular snacks such as samosas and sweets, which are factors contributing to obesity.
Though Kerala was not seen as a state suffering from obesity, Dr Johny J Kannampilly, head of diabetology at Lakeshore Hospital, Kochi, said that he was increasingly seeing 5-10 new cases of younger patients (in their 30s) getting “Coco-colonized”, a interesting term for the fast food culture. “There has been a rise in all lifestyle diseases and this has become an all-India epidemic,” said Kannampilly.
“People are moving away from traditional foods and home-cooked food and going in for hotel food which is 30-40 percent higher in sugar, salts and trans fats to make them tastier and has more calories. While WHO has said that only 2.5 gms of salt should be consumed per day, we are eating much more,” he said.
In fact, he said that big food chains abroad had even appointed scientists to see how people could become addicted to fast food. Studies have shown that sugar is more addictive than cocaine.
Unlike olden times when people walked more and did more manual work, today, they walk less now and have gadgets such as mixers/grinders, washing machines and vacuum cleaners to make household work easier. This had led to a dangerous situation which is just the tip of the iceberg, he said. “In the olden days, people would get diabetes by the time they were in their 60s. But today, they get it in their 20s and 30s.”
Kannampilly, who does Metanoia (life-style modification) programs, said there is a mind and body connection when one sees food. This is called the “See Food Syndrome” as opposed to seafood, said Kannampilly, laughing. This is a tendency to simply eat food when one sees it, irrespective of whether one is hungry or not. Malayalees are especially prone to eating parotta (made of refined flour, salt and tans fats) with non-veg curries and bakery items (the state has many bakeries selling cakes, meat/egg puffs, banana chips, halwas, etc). Ideally, trans fats should be less than one percent of the food item, but in roadside snacks, it could be as high as 30 percent.
Both Misra and Kannampilly said the fat tax should include all unhealthy food. “All Indian and western junk foods such as Indian sweets, fried snacks such as samosa, pakora, packaged namkeens, pizzas, burgers, French Fries, packaged ready-to-eat foods such as soups and gravies and bakery items should be taxed,” asserted Misra. “There should be regulation to prevent small vendors and local sweet shops from reusing oils,” he added.
Kannampilly said the money from the fat tax should be used to subsidize fruits and vegetables. “But no matter what tax is put, people will not suddenly change their eating habits. It will be a slow change,” he said.
Surprisingly, the poor in Kerala and elsewhere are also prone to eating cheap junk food—snacks sold on the roadside—as they are cheaper than healthy alternatives.
Interestingly, one can be metabolically normal and active and still be obese. At the same time, one can be lean and still have diabetes. A study done by Prof Roy Taylor at Newcastle University found an abnormal storage of fat and glycogen in the pancreas, liver and muscle in Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is caused by abnormal fat storage in the pancreas. And those having fatty liver due to eating fatty food and sugar should be careful as it can eventually lead to liver cirrhosis. However, diabetes, found Roy, could be reversed if one loses weight.
All the more reason to not put it on in the first place.
Lead picture: Snacks like pakoras and samosas also wreck havoc on our health. Photo: Anil Shakya