POLITICS

Kerala's 'Fat Tax' Is Thin On Facts, Laden With Posturing

Kerala is indeed unhealthy, but certainly not because of pizzas and burgers.

14/07/2016 2:31 PM IST | Updated 18/07/2016 9:02 PM IST
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Kerala Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan (R) and Finance Minister T. M. Thomas Issac attend the inauguration of the 52nd meeting of the National Development Council (NDC), in New Delhi 09 December 2006.

Dr. Thomas Issac, the finance minister of Kerala, is a trained economist. In 2009, in his first term as a finance minister, he proposed dredging and selling the sand silted in the dams of the state to raise money to partially cover its revenue deficit. During the same tenure, he also proposed raising Rs 40,000 crore by establishing an Islamic Bank.

Both were hailed as innovative ideas by CPM-supporters, but came to naught. The sand dredging became a joke and the Islamic bank never took off. But, the man never stopped being innovative.In his second term as the finance minister, he recently made global headlines by proposing India's first ever "fat tax" in the state's annual budget.

Unlike in his past budget misadventures, the idea of the "fat tax" is not to raise money because it doesn't foresee a few hundred crores that he thought he could make by selling sand, but only Rs 10 crore.

Unlike in his past budget misadventures, the idea of the "fat tax" is not to raise money because it doesn't foresee a few hundred crores that he thought he could make by selling sand, but only Rs 10 crore. Instead, Issac's reported aim is to discourage fast food so that people get healthier. "All traditional healthy food is going out of fashion and fast food is becoming popular, we want to discourage this," Isaac reportedly told the media "This is a healthy and environment friendly budget, and fat tax fitted very well," he reportedly said.

Although such a tax had been levied only in Denmark and Japan, and the former had lifted it within a year, Issac's aim of discouraging fast food is noble because Kerala indeed has an unhealthy eating habit and associated disease burden. But, his targets are merely symbolic and betray a clear lack of understanding of the real problem.

Contrary to what he claimed, his proposal is not to curb fast food, but products such as burgers, pizzas, sandwiches, doughnuts and pasta sold at branded restaurants. The paltry revenue that he proposes to collect from this tax itself shows that he is not serious, but wants to indulge in some posturing. Had he been serious, he should have reviewed academic literature on Kerala's NCD (non communicable diseases) burden and taxed a range of food articles beyond pizzas and burgers, even though the idea had been proven to be a dud in the rest of the world.

Kerala is indeed unhealthy, but certainly not because of pizzas and burgers.

Kerala is indeed unhealthy, but certainly not because of pizzas and burgers.

As this comprehensive case study in Indian Journal of Medical Research of the government-run ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) shows, Kerala is the diabetes capital of India and its age-adjusted cardiovascular mortality is twice that of the United States. Heart diseases are rising not just among men, but also among women. Normal weight children in the state have the highest mean blood pressure in the world, and about 50 per cent of the children of 16 years have low levels of HDL cholesterol ("good cholesterol"). The state also has a high incidence of Vitamin D deficiency because of poor exposure to sunlight. The list goes on.

It's bizarre to think that Kerala is unhealthy because of eating big brand pizzas and burgers sold in a handful of outlets, that too in the cities. What makes them really unhealthy is excessive consumption of sugar, salt and saturated fats; more meat and less vegetables; sedentary lifestyle; and sheer consumption (roughly about three per cent of the country's population consuming 15 per cent of its products). And it's been happening over the last three decades.

A chapter in the 2007 book "Kerala Fifty Years and Beyond" notes that the state's share of marketed products high in salt, sugar and saturated fats is twice as that of the rest of India. Only 54.8 per cent of the people eat vegetables more than once a week, while 82.8 per cent of the people eat at least one non-vegetarian dish every day. With very poor farming in the state, the people depend on marketed products. And these products have resulted in a positive energy balance - people eat more than their calorie needs and the excess food gets stored as fat that make them vulnerable to NCDs. Processed food and salt add extra layers of risk.

Evidently, Kerala's NCD burden is not just about fat, but about a vicious cycle of bad dietary and lifestyle practices and a profligate consumption culture.

Data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) and various research studies show that there's no major rural-urban divide in Kerala's bad fat and health problem, which means that the unhealthy eating habits and lack of physical activity is not restricted to people living in cities alone. Translated into Issac's "fat tax" language, it means people are eating burgers and pizzas in rural areas as well!

Evidently, Kerala's NCD burden is not just about fat, but about a vicious cycle of bad dietary and lifestyle practices and a profligate consumption culture. For instance, a lesser known fact about the the state is the incidence of low birth weight. As the ICMR case study highlights, the low birth weight is because of the metabolic risk factors of women during their reproductive age caused by unhealthy eating, lack of physical activity and deficiency in Vitamin D due to poor exposure to sunlight. This phenomenon exposes future generations to the risk of NCDs as illustrated by data. People in the state themselves seemed to have made the extra wiring for their own health risks.

If Issac and CPM are serious, this is what they should break. Just as the previous UDF governments prohibition wouldn't discourage people from drinking, his "fat tax" will make absolutely no impact. They have to look for an attitude change that will lead to long lasting behaviour change: increase local production - particularly food given the very poor vegetable intake (of the 37 paisa they spend on food, vegetables account for only three paise) -, make people work, make them eat more at home, and make the sedentary ones exercise.

If Issac is still bent upon a "fat tax", he should tax all the eateries selling "traditional" staple such as beef, parotta and anything that's called "chilly" and "fry" because both are euphemisms for a lot of oil, salt and taste-enhancing additives that are bad for health. If his idea is to indulge in silly communist posturing by symbolically taxing MNC food brands, let's wish him luck because his Chief Minister wants to bring big guns to the state.

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