Vegetarians have become used to being victimised at comedy clubs. “Hands up all those vegetarians present,” quips the compere. “Oh, none of them seem to have enough energy to raise their hands.”
But research suggests it is the vegetarians who are likely to have the last laugh. Just ask the Vegetarian Society. It can refer to a wealth of information showing that those who don’t eat meat are healthier than average and likely to live longer.
A typical vegetarian diet closely matches expert dietary recommendations for healthy eating, being low in saturated fat and high in fibre, complex carbohydrates, fresh fruit and vegetables. As a result, studies have shown vegetarians to suffer less from heart disease, various cancers, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and a range of other illnesses.
They suffer a lower mortality rate from cardiovascular disease compared with meat eaters of anything between 28 per cent and 61 per cent, depending on the source of the research. Similarly, their cancer mortality rate is estimated to be anything between 39 per cent and 70 per cent lower.
Vegetarianism is therefore potentially as significant as any other lifestyle factor. But for the time being, life and health underwriters are not willing to offer related discounts.
The only discounts available can be obtained through Animal Friends Insurance (AFI), an underwriting agency based near Worthing in Sussex. This will refund 25 per cent of its own commission to life assurance and critical illness (CI) policyholders. But to date not even its own underwriter, Liverpool Victoria Life, is willing to play the game.
AFI, a non-profit-making organisation that started trading in September 2000, is the brainchild of Chris and Elaine Fairfax, a couple with a long-standing interest in animal welfare. All surpluses go to animal welfare groups and projects such as the Born Free Foundation and Compassion in World Farming.
Founder and director Chris Fairfax says: “We’ve looked around the whole industry and have so far found no underwriters willing to give discounts. But most have indicated they remain open to persuasion and have not actually closed the door on us.
“One stumbling block has been that insurers have not considered the size of the UK vegetarian population, which is generally understood to be four million. Another is that they are worried how they can be sure someone who professes to be a vegetarian does not actually eat meat. But we argue that it’s the same problem as with smokers and nonsmokers.”
Nevertheless, insurers can use cotinine tests to verify that nonsmokers are genuine. Reports from GPs will also refer to smoker status.
Matt Rann, the head of underwriting and claims at Scottish Equitable, says: “I understand that both reinsurers and the Institute of Actuaries have looked at the statistics about vegetarians and feel the sample sizes involved in the research are not large enough to draw concrete conclusions from. But it could well be a trend for the future and we’re keeping a careful eye on it.
“Some CI underwriters are undoubtedly aware of this research and the majority would introduce discounts for vegetarians if reinsurers recommended them. But it’s difficult to determine what length of time someone needs to be a vegetarian for to represent a better-than-average risk.”
Even the Vegetarian Society admits it is difficult to account for the exact contribution of each nutrient in making vegetarians better-than-average risks and that not all vegetarian diets are necessarily healthy. Someone could, for example, be consuming too large a proportion of high-fat dairy products.
But it is easy to forget that at one time most life offices did not offer discounts for nonsmokers and that as soon as one starts offering a new feature the others invariably follow. Chris Fairfax, who still has several important meetings with underwriters pending, is confident of persuading at least one of them to introduce vegetarian discounts by the end of this year.
Should his efforts in due course lead to a change in attitude industry-wide, it should not be forgotten that what constitutes good news for vegetarians will effectively be at the expense of meat eaters.
Nick Kirwan, the head of protection at Scottish Provident, says: “Since the dawn of insurance, people have been looking to charge an appropriate price for an appropriate risk.
“But if they produce significant discounts for vegetarians it will mean most vegetarians buy these discounted products and premiums for meat eaters will go up. When you sort people into two groups there are winners and losers.”