Fat tax or no fat tax, obesity rates will be tough to cut without OPEC’s help

In 1967, Britain’s Labour government threw itself head-first into the world of urban planning. Keen to be seen as the man who would modernize Britain, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government took the first steps to build an entirely new city on the site of Milton Keynes, an obscure village roughly 90 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of central London.

The “new city”, as the built-up Milton Keynes was styled, would be the exact opposite of London, with its chaotic mix of pedestrians and vehicles in its narrow, winding streets, and its mix of businesses and residences within feet of one another.

Instead, Milton Keynes would become the first English city designed on North American suburban principles. Its streets would be set out in a grid pattern, and traffic lights would be synchronized, to ensure that traffic moved as quickly as possible. A network of paths, known as “redways”, would ensure that pedestrians and cyclists were kept well away from traffic. With plenty of green space, it was also billed as “a City in the Forest”.

Unlike other British and European cities, which lack a clearly defined “downtown” — the concept is largely a North American invention barely dating back a century — Milton Keynes would have a well-defined city centre, complete with an enormous shopping mall.

It was hoped that eventually 250,000 people would live in Milton Keynes, given its central location nearly equidistant from the two major cities of London and Birmingham, and the two great university towns of Cambridge and Oxford.

“MK”, as the city is known to locals, came tantalizingly close to hitting that 250,000 mark in the 2011 census, with an official Milton Keynes Urban Area count of 229,941 — an increase of nearly 25 percent over the 2001 population count.

Despite the rapid population growth, Milton Keynes is not universally seen as a success. “Even accountants find Milton Keynes boring,” said a cruelly mocking headline in Britain’s The Independent newspaper in 1998.  Three years later, when a BBC web site asked readers to name the most boring place on Earth, several readers nominated Milton Keynes. (Edmonton, here in Canada, also figured prominently.)

In addition to being “boring”, the British city designed around the automobile is now known for its residents’ weight problems: a new study from Public Health England reports that 72 percent of Milton Keynes adults are overweight or obese, the MK Web news site published on Tuesday.

My thoughts turned back to Milton Keynes the day after reading the above news story, upon hearing that the provincial government had considered, and then rejected, the idea of introducing a “healthy living levy” — a.k.a., a “fat tax” — to discourage Manitobans from eating unhealthy foods.

This was probably a sensible move after the Danish government was forced to repeal a tax on saturated fats after finding that it was too complicated to administer, and was encouraging Danes to make the short trip to Sweden and Germany to load up on food. (Being within the common-border Schengen zone, there are no limits on what Danes can bring back from Germany or Sweden for their own personal use; in fact, they’re unlikely to face any border checks at all.)

Yet Denmark hardly seems like a country with a pressing need for a “fat tax” at all. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) latest figures on adult obesity, only 13 percent of Danish adults were considered obese — barely half of Canada’s 24 percent obesity rate.

The two least-obese OECD countries were South Korea and Japan, where fewer than five percent of adults are obese, followed by Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Sweden and France — countries with varying climates and dietary traditions — with rates ranging from eight to 11 percent.

While the average Japanese and Korean citizen has a significantly lower daily caloric intake than the average Canadian — about 700 fewer calories per day in Japan, 500 fewer in South Korea — average daily caloric intake in most of the other countries is in roughly the same league as Canada.

The real difference between us and them is that, as Canadians, we’ve become Milton Keynesians. We live in cities that were designed around the assumption of nearly universal car ownership among adults, and neighbourhoods where the streets are nearly devoid of walkers — indeed, quite often, of any sign of human activity — because there is nowhere to walk to.

We take the calories in just as quickly as many slimmer Europeans — but those calories go back out as expended energy at a much slower rate.

There is little anyone can do to change the character of such neighbourhoods. They are here to stay, and there are more of them poised to come into existence all the time. And it’s a rare civic or provincial government that isn’t easily acquiescent to whatever is presented to it for approval.

The way our cities are designed, however, is also based on the assumption of inexpensive gasoline. Although it is fashionable in Canada to complain about the high price of gasoline compared to the United States, Canadian prices are bargain-basement compared to many of the lower-obesity countries noted above: a litre of gasoline costs more than $2 Cdn. in most of the other countries noted above, with the highest prices as of Feb. 5, 2014 being found in Italy ($2.67/litre), the Netherlands ($2.63) and Norway ($2.60).

Do higher fuel prices make it more enticing to be more physically active? The research certainly suggests so:

  • A 2008 study by Charles Courtemanche of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found that “8% of the U.S.’ rise in obesity over the period 1979-2004 can be attributed to falling gas prices during that time . . . [and] a rise in gas prices increases walking or bicycling and decreases the amount people eat out at restaurants, explaining their effect on weight.”
  • And a 2011 study by Bisakha Sen of the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that while higher gas prices in the U.S. had a mildly positive effect in terms of getting people to walk or cycle more, there were stronger indicators that people do their own household and yard work during times of high gas prices instead of hiring others to do this work for them.

Thus, the best hope for reducing obesity rates in Canada might be for the OPEC oil producing countries to tighten up the oil supply, and send gasoline prices soaring — though that would not be without its own share of economic and political pain.

In the absence of that — and it is entirely possible that the inflation-adjusted price of gasoline will remain below $2.00 per litre in Canada for a long time to come — expect that high obesity rates will also continue to exist and even rise here in Canada until well into the future.