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Home > Media

Giles Coren Vs Fat People: Where's the Beef?

12 June 2006

This week a show called 'Tax the Fat' appeared on the More 4 channel. It was one of those programmes that can get away with floating bizarre ideas because, hey, it's only TV at the end of the day, and it's ironic and iconoclastic, yah? Somewhere in the development pipeline there's no doubt a show called 'Kill the Poor', but we digress.

Obesity (as opposed to being slightly overweight, or tubby, or curvy, or whatever) is bad. It means that people die prematurely and costs money because they are more likely to require hospital treatment for various fat-related illnesses. (And, of course, they consume more natural resources. It's estimated that almost a barrel of oil is needed to make the synthetic stretch fabrics for just one pair of XXL Primark leggings.)

Despite the semi-serious tone of the programme, presenter Giles Coren had devised a disturbingly detailed system for taxing the fat, as though he'd been privately thinking about it for several years. This is it:

'I would take the square root of the Body Mass Index, so you get a nice curving graph so you can apply it in a proportional way. I would then divide it by 100 and multiply it by your tax liability. For example, if your BMI is 36 - which is probably what John Prescott's is - you take the square root of that, which would be six, and divide it by 100, giving you a figure of 6 per cent. Then, suppose your tax liability is 10,000, you would pay an extra 600 a year in tax.'

Coren admits the idea sounds 'absurd', which begs the question, 'Why in God's name make a TV programme about it?' And absurd it is - you'd have to weigh everyone, work out their body mass index to find out if they really were fat and create an army of civil servants to administer the fat tax, not to mention deal with questions like 'Are the obese unemployed exempt?' Worst of all, can you imagine the poor, depressed comfort eater, already racked with guilt about being fat, getting a tax demand for 600? As soon as they'd finished the Chocolate Hobnobs they'd start on the cushions.

However, the central premise of 'Tax the Fat' was not a million miles from an idea the government had. Back in 2004 it was reported that higher tax on fatty foods such as cakes and biscuits was being considered by government advisers, with one newspaper claiming that the embryonic plans were outlined in an actual Whitehall document. (A government spokesman quickly denied it, so it must have been true.)

If you're going to put a tax on cakes and biscuits, then in principle at least you need a tax on all unhealthy foods. Quite apart from this being insane Soviet-style intervention in the economy, most of the food we eat is unhealthy if you eat too much of it: fast food, ready meals, Sunday roasts, pasta, baked potatoes. You could probably get fat on salad, if you drown it in enough Heinz salad semen of Satan sauce.

Thus we can conclude that taxing the fat, directly or indirectly, isn't really feasible, although there could possibly be more practical ways of doing it, such as charging NHS patients for treatment for illnesses related to obesity. If this sticks in your craw, it's probably because there's a certain inhumanity in penalising obese people. (Not a view shared by Giles Coren: 'Being overweight is not an addiction - it didn't exist 50 years ago. It is a lack of restraint, a lack of self-respect.')

In reality, obesity affects a disproportionate number of poor people. The exact reasons are unclear, but the most commonly cited is that it's cheaper to buy frozen food or junk food than healthy food. This may not be exactly true, but if you're looking after young children, burgers and oven chips don't go to waste, unlike grilled salmon steaks with a green leaf salad.

Also, people in general who are obese or seriously overweight tend to be concerned about it at some level. Without wishing to generalise too much, you can be a bit fat or plump and not give a fig about it, but if you're obese, then chances are you've noticed and feel quite bad about it. You'll definitely have had it pointed out to you, either maliciously or out of concern for your health. 'You Are What You Eat' remains one of the most quietly disturbing pieces of 'entertainment' on TV, for the way men and women alike regularly break down in tears of shame when confronted with their eating habits by the horrible 'Dr' Gillian McKeith, a woman who looks as though she spends her spare time turning people into Cybermen for fun.

(Maybe someone should do a show confronting all these bogus experts with their flimsy qualifications: 'Gillian, here are all the qualifications you traded on this week. A Diploma in Foodology from Plymouth Language College, a PhD in Noshanetics from the Fee-Paying University of L. Ron Hubbard...' 'SOB!'')

Above all, if you're going to tax fat people, directly or indirectly, on the grounds that they cost the country money, then why not tax anyone who costs the state money, e.g. the fuckwits who decide to climb Snowdonia in November wearing a t-shirt and flip-flops. Or anyone who subjects themselves to endless unnecessary risks at cost to the taxpayer, e.g. extreme sports enthusiasts who haven't had a proper day's sport unless they've got 400 compound fractures.

But even this seems pointless; why not pay for heart bypasses and rescue helicopters by taxing people who contribute nothing of discernible value to society? A brief straw poll here at TFT threw up too many suggestions to recount, but here are some deserving victims:

- paparazzi who devote their lives to getting pictures that are surely of no interest to anyone, e.g. Bob Mortimer at a garden centre with his wife;

- the publishing geniuses who came up with 'Nuts' and 'Zoo' magazines, finally making soft-core wank material available in a weekly format;

- people who don't merely drive 4x4s in urban areas, but drive the sort of 4x4s that aren't designed for off-road use in the first place, e.g. the well-known Japanese make that has a tendency to topple over on any gradient steeper than the King's Road;

- the twat off the confused.com adverts. (A bit unfair because he's an actor, but we'll certainly include the brass-necked bastards at www.visit4info.com who will actually attempt to charge you to watch the adverts);

- Richard Hammond, the little boy helper from 'Top Gear', whose sole purpose in life seems to be to massage Jeremy Clarkson's massively engorged ego.

- Bono, except he'd probably claim to enjoy it.

- That'll do for now.

Oh, but let's not forget Giles Coren. Let's tax that fucker till he bleeds.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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