Question 3 of the RES essay competition for 2011 asks “Would a ‘fat tax’ be an effective policy to counter obesity?”

On the surface this seems like one of the most accessible questions of the five for the 2011 competition.  Rsing rates of obesity are putting an enormous strain on the NHS, with current costs reaching
£4.2 billion per year

Students attempting it might be well advised to bear in mind that an AS-style microeconomics essay on obesity and market failure is unlikely to make much of an impact with the judges. There is always a risk that many essays to this type of question adopt an exam-style approach making frequent use of supply and demand diagrams to illustrate the possible effects of a tax on high-fat foods and other approaches.

My strong advice to students is to avoid this temptation and instead to attack the question making strong use of empirical evidence on different policy approaches to reducing the obesity epidemic. And also to show an understanding of behavioural economics in understanding a range of alternative strategies. Answers on this question that make the final short-list will be well researched, use an evidence-based style (rather than relying on simple assertions) and may well show an understanding of how this public health issue has been tackled in different countries in recent years.

Suggestions for extension reading

BBC Panorama (November 2010): Should the UK tax high-fat junk food to cut obesity rates?

World Health Organisation: Resources on obesity

British Medical Association: Tackling the obesity crisis

OECD report (November 2010): Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat See also OECD, The Economics of Health

Questions in Behavioural Economics - Combatting obesity (Charles Smart)

Institute for Fiscal Studies: The ‘fat tax’: economic incentives to reduce obesity

Guardian: Call to tax junk food ingredients to halt obesity (April 2011)

Guardian articles on obesity

Tackling the British love for fat (Economic Review, November 2009)

Obesity Hub (UK)






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