Naked Scientists Podcast

Naked Scientists episode

Tue, 24th Nov 2015

Sugar Tax: Answer to Obesity?

sugar sweets (c)

This week, is sugar the enemy? Difficult as it is to digest, one person in every four in the UK is obese, and treating the condition as well as its knock-on effects, costs the health service 5.1 billion per year. Some say sugar is to blame, but is it the only guilty party? Plus, in the news, pigeons detecting cancer, half of museum specimens might be mislabelled, and how science journals are being hacked...

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In this edition of Naked Scientists

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  • 46:24 - The sugar tax: would it even work?

    After two years of sugar tax, the Mexican government canned it. But the UK is considering it... How effective would it be?

  • 50:55 - How can I stop a runny nose?

    Hi! I listen to your show every day on the way to work (A long with a few other science ones) and I've got a good question that no one I know seems to know the answer to. I've had a runny nose and attendant sinus and throat trouble for about a week. Why does my nose run so long,...



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It makes almost as much sense as taxing salt, butter, saccharine, margarine, or any of the other once-fashionable food scares. Taxing cigarettes and alcohol has almost no longterm effect on consumption. The way to save public money is not to treat voluntary illnesses like lung cancer, obesity, drug public expense. Problem is that this is the thin end of a wedge: should we treat sports injuries for free? Why not make employers wholly responsible for the cost of occupational accidents and diseases? The earning potential for lawyers is enormous!   

Per capita calorie consumption in the UK has actually decreased since the 1950s. The reason people get fat on less food is because we no longer get cold. Nearly all the energy you consume, whether as food or as coal, oil, gas and electricity, is used to maintain body temperature. Nobody had even heard of domestic central heating in the 1950s, public transport was mostly unheated, and heaters in cars were an expensive optional extra. Practically everyone of my generation remembers keeping their school uniform in bed or warming their shirt in front of a fire before putting it on in the morning. We walked up to 3 miles to school every day (nobody's mum had a car) and played football at least twice a week in all weathers - plus of course "playing out" every evening after school. We ate stodge, greasy stews and chips, and burnt off the fat just trying to stay alive in single-glazed classrooms. Then we went to work in unheated factories, offices with coal stoves, or in the open air, and stayed cold for 8 hours a day until we earned our pensions or died.  alancalverd, Wed, 25th Nov 2015

A tax on sugar not only taxes the obese, but it also taxes those with a healthy sense of dietary balance. If the goal was to address obesity, skinny people should not have to pay a sugar tax, since they are not obese.

A targeted tax for the obese and a targeted non-tax for those with reasonable weight, is like the stick and the carrot used for training. If you wish to avoid the tax-stick, all you need to do is lose weight and/or keep weight off. If you loose weight or stay reasonable you also get the non-tax carrot. The stick is not intended to hurt but only to contrast the carrot.

If you tax both the obese and thin; one tax size fits all,  there is no sense of behavioral direction being specified. If anything, you are treating the skinny like they are obese, since this its how the tax is justified, and this is how the tax is being applied; tax for obesity.

You need to show a distinct between the good behavior and the bad behavior, then set up a gradient that will funnel people away from the stick, toward the carrot.

In schools, I would have two lines and two menus for the children. When you enter the lunch room there is a private  weigh in, with the students separated into the two chow lines. One chow lines has more calories and flavor for the active and skinny kids, and the other chow line is more low cal, dietary and tasteless.

All the students will see the reward for being thin, and the less than a reward, for being obese. If they wish to change lines all they need to alter behavior. For those who overcome, this is a great accomplishment that may last a lifetime. It is a lesson of life.

If you make everyone, including the skinny kids, eat diet food to help the plight of the obese, you are telling the skinny kids you need to eat like you are obese. The result has been more overweight children. If you tell a smart kids they are stupid enough they will stop trying to be smart. If you give a thin kids the diet food for an obese people, he will stop being skinny since you are calling him obese. 

puppypower, Wed, 25th Nov 2015

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