Don’t Ask Me What I Want It For

So, last week I laid out some of the reasons I thought that a fat tax was a bad idea (read them here: Of course, since then, the budget has been and gone, with no fat tax announced – I guess they listened!

Still, I did promise that I would follow it up this week, with further discussion of the third fundamentally-flawed assumption that underlies all arguments in favour of a fat tax.

The assumption is this: that all thin people are healthy, and all fat people are unhealthy.


This assumption underlies any suggestion that, say, the Medicare levy should be increased for people who are quote-unquote overweight, or that careless fatties should pay more to be privately insured.

I just fail to understand how this would be applied. Setting aside for a moment the question of whether or not the underlying assumption is even correct, think about this: how could we even implement this idea?

Do we measure weight in kilograms, and set a big red line at some arbitrary point (beyond which you are deemed “fat enough” to punish)?

Do we use BMI, a measure that most athletes would fail (given that muscle mass is more dense than fat mass)?

Do we use body fat percentage (knowing full well that the measure would be unfairly biased against women)?

And, even if we can choose one of these, when and how would we take these measures? Should our public health system try to absorb the cost of body fat testing for every taxpayer? Do we weigh everyone at the end of each financial year? If you were “skinny enough” in the previous year, but “too fat” in this one, do you still have to pay the price? Or do we just measure everyone at the age they file their first tax return, and use that result forevermore?

This idea has more holes than Swiss cheese

This idea has more holes than Swiss cheese!

But back to the core issue: by even entertaining this suggestion, we assume that skinny = healthy, and fat = unhealthy. We blindly accept that body fat is a true indicator of health, in 100% of cases. As I quoted in the last post, the Commission of Audit was reported as suggesting that overweight people be fiscally punished for their “unhealthy lifestyle habits”, as though either the fat is irrefutable proof of their sloth, or simply having the fat itself is a behaviour worth admonishing.

“But surely you agree that there’s at least a correlation between losing weight and being healthier?”.

Nope. Not really.

Here are the habits that I think actually do contribute to quote-unquote health: vegetable consumption, frequency of physical activity, duration and quality of sleep. There’s plenty of empirical data to back me up on each of these points.

There are some people who get their food, activity and sleep dialled in, and lose weight as a result. There are some people who tick all those same boxes, and gain weight as a result. And then there are those whose weight remains exactly the same, regardless of what they do. It’s not that the latter two groups are lazy, or liars, or unlucky; they’re regular people, a normal section of the population.

Food, activity, sleep: these are all ACUTAL behaviours, with ACTUAL impacts on health, that people can ACTUALLY control. So, why would we instead focus on weight? Something so largely un-controllable, affected by so many variables (many of which remain unknown)?

Weight control

(Please note that I am NOT advocating the replacement of a fat tax with a food/activity/sleep tax. In fact, I find the idea of any punitive measure used as a fiscal imperative for health morally repugnant. But, whatever. Just making the point.)

Thin people aren’t necessarily the healthiest, or those who engage in the most health-promoting behaviours. Indeed, many thin people are deathly ill. And fat people aren’t necessarily gluttonous couch-potatoes. Yet, they live in a world that assumes this of them every day.

Need a real world example? Myself and The Dude I Live With:

Me and Nick

Looking at us from the outside, you’d probably think that he uses his hard-won trim frame to run marathons, while I cheer him on from my chair, shovelling down a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Really, nothing could be further from the truth: I’m the one up and killing it at the gym at 5:30AM, while he gets out of breath walking home from the shops (no offence, honey).

And, yet, under a fat tax regime, where the unhealthy (read: overweight) must pay, I’d get slugged, and The Dude I Live With wouldn’t. Does that seem fair?

I could always return to a life of extreme dietary restriction. I’d certainly lose a lot of weight, and keep my hard-earned dollars for myself. But, ironically, I’d be far less healthy for it.

So, Mr Taxman, kindly keep your eyes off my scale, and out of my shopping trolley. You have no business here. If anyone starts throwing some almost-logical-sounding arguments in favour of a fat tax your way, now you know what to tell them. If we want to start supporting the health imperative, let’s start with health-promoting behaviours, and leave physical appearance out of it.


4 thoughts on “Don’t Ask Me What I Want It For

  1. >Do we use body fat percentage (knowing full well that the measure would be unfairly biased against women)?

    Why do you think that? Just set a different standard for women than for men.

    • That is actually quite a good solution (seems obvious now!). However, the other issues with body fat testing (cost, margin of error, frame of reference) remain, and I could see gendered standards opening a can of worms (should our tax code be gendered? what about the transgendered community? etc.)

  2. Hurrah! Well put, Sheree. Many years ago, I knew a young woman who was one of the world’s top photo models. She was so thin by eating so little and exercising so much that her body started using her stomach lining for food. She was in intensive care, then in hospital for some time. After release from hospital, still very slender but not as skinny as she had been, her life-insurance premium went up — not because she’d had a life-threatening condition — but because she was heavier. At over 180cm tall, she weighed less than I did, which at the time was about 56kg. I was 160cm short. I was far, far healthier than she and by no means fat.

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