The food regulator, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), has recommended a sin tax on junk food and severe curbs on their advertising—to lay the way to an eventual ban on them. Increasing obesity of populations, especially childhood obesity, is weighing heavy in the minds of policy-makers worldwide, and to that extent, FSSAIs fat tax—actually, fat, salt and sugar (FSS) tax—may sound like a healthy proposition. The problem is that the FSSAI wants almost everything off your plate. The list of what it thinks should attract the FSS tax include chips, all deep-fried Indian snacks, French fries, all sweet, fatty or salty packaged snacks, ice cream, chocolates, candies, burgers and hot-dogs, poultry and fish nuggets (or fingers), mass-manufactured biscuits, breakfast cereals, all bakery products, energy bars, preserves (jams), margarine, canned/bottled/dehydrated soups, noodles, sauces, meat, yeast extracts, soft, carbonated, cola, energy drinks among many, many other food items. In its zealousness, the regulator even implicitly wants us to bake our own breads—mass-manufactured breads are also on its list of evil foods, as are packaged baby foods and nutritional supplements of all kinds.
While the experiences of countries like Denmark, Hungary, etc, show that a fat tax is no cakewalk, the very idea smacks of, pardon the pun, Big Government. Regulating food quality and standards is one thing, but the government skimming out processed food (which may not be always junk food in the accepted sense of the term) is quite the overreach. To be sure, the public healthcare burden from obesity and related diseases presents a super-sized problem. But the government must remember carrots work better than sticks. Incentivising fitness and healthy eating, say, by charging a smaller fee from fitter students in educational institutions or giving fitter employees an extra couple of days of ‘earned leaves’, could have more people watching what they eat. With a fat tax, the government might end up eating dust if people simply put more money into what their mouths like.