A meat levy, tobacco-style?

This is not only a Russian story, it’s a part of a bizarre  global trend, called maybe ‘obligatory health’


FIRST, there was a proposal from an Expert Council member under the Russian government: There has to be a levy on red meat and processed red meat, which mostly means sausage. 

That would make these products more expensive (maybe by 30%) and lower their consumption, while the collected money would subsidise “healthy food”.

It was reported that the initiative belongs, in fact, to the Health Ministry since meat is a renown killer, responsible for an annual 2.4 million of “premature” deaths in the “developed countries”.

There is a cabal of madmen at work in Russia, intent on crushing the government and enraging the society — that was the common reaction to this news. The experts reminded us that sausage is a darling of the nation, coming from Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. Hitting that product with a “tobacco-style” levy will not diminish that love, it will only make poorer households lower the quality of meat purchased.

Agricultural experts reminded us that Russia has created a booming food industry in the last three to four years, so why undermine it? Trade experts added their stinging remarks.

And suddenly, Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova declared that she had nothing to do with that initiative. It was a private opinion of certain experts.

I do know at least one of these experts who was imprudent enough to put her signature under the “tobacco- style meat levy”. Her name is Darya Khalturina. Africanist by education, she became known for her proposals first to tax, and then to limit sales of alcohol.

Later, that lady became a member of yet another “expert council” at the very same Health Ministry, in charge of fighting smoking by huge levies and bans. Finally, she attacked meat and sausage — and let’s not forget the sugared soda drinks that she also fights.

What we have here is not only a Russian story, it’s a part of a bizarre global trend, called maybe “obligatory health”.

Khalturina and her like are very quick to receive certain “medical” materials for rebroadcasting in their subsequent countries. The “meat report” had been published only a week before by Dr Marco Springmann, from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford.

The figure of 2.4 million deaths by meat is his. Having friends in British medical circles, I had been made privy to their blistering attacks on Dr Springmann, who was called a producer of yet another masterpiece of junk science with weird statistical guesstimates. But to some less-educated people in Russia, any report from a place like Oxford, England, still looks formidable. If it does not touch their sausage, that is.

It’s not for nothing that the words “tobacco-style” always crop up in such cases. Tobacco control began it all. Junk science — scaring people out of their minds — is always the central part of such tactics. The idea that tobacco smoke can harm others around a smoker has been based, mildly saying, on disputed science produced by people getting grants from the sources intent on proving their point. These sources do almost everything to silence other science research.

Then, there always has to be heavy levies and bans, partial or total. And then there has to be victorious statistics demonstrating that the bans really work — although in reality they always fail miserably, while producing new and ugly problems.

We may leave aside the money side of that phenomenon, namely the fact that there always are some powerful industrial lobbies financing such scare-tax-and-ban activities, to win new customers through fear. Let’s look at the murderous idealists serving these industries. They may well destroy the medical profession as we know it.

A doctor is supposed to be your friend. A doctor is a person whom you come to for help, regardless of the reason for your malady. A doctor coming after you with a blunt weapon, making you healthy by force, is something entirely else. Such “public health” can only be feared and hated, which means the end of public respect for medical professions.

It was tobacco control that started that trend. Bend the facts a little bit, for the greater good. Then, insinuate your way into your government, loading it with poorly enforceable bans.

Create an unaccountable and uncontrolled international body coordinating such activities — like the World Health Organisation with its obstinate fight with tobacco. Call everyone who disagrees a monster and a paid agent of the opposing industrial lobby.

And then spread your activity to almost anything you may envisage — meat, sugared drinks, palm oil — and tell the people you’ll make them live longer and better, if they obey you.

That’s how you get your absolute power over people’s lives, and get rich in the process.

And then that’s how you eventually fail. Because people tend to do what they like (eg eat meat), not what they are told to do.

Dmitry Kosyrev is an author of 8 novels and a book of short stories, as well as a columnist for 2 Moscow publications. Orientalist by education (Moscow University), he has a special love for Malaysia. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.