Paternalism goes pop

A proposed soft-drinks tax assumes we are incapable of making even a snack-time decision for ourselves.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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‘Sugar-laden drinks are mini-health timebombs, contributing to dental diseases, obesity and a host of life-threatening illnesses which cost the NHS billions each year.’ So announced a spokesperson for part state-funded food and farming charity, Sustain, which has just published a report on the subject. Seemingly not content with cribbing the press releases of Alcohol Concern or ASH, Sustain is also more than happy to rip off the favourite legislative recourse of today’s quangocrified public-health lobby – the sin tax.

That’s right, Sustain – backed by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Friends of the Earth, the National Heart Forum and the Royal Society for Public Health – wants the Lib-Con coalition to impose a 20 pence duty on every litre of sugar-added beverage. To be fair to Sustain, it’s not their idea; it’s something that’s been knocking around policymaking circles for the past decade or so. For instance, in 2004, New Labour’s Downing Street Strategy Unit was busily recommending a more general fat tax as an obesity-fighting ‘signal to society’ in its tellingly titled paper, Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour. More recently, the Conservative’s coalition partners, the Lib Dems, mooted a specific fizzy-drinks tax as part of a raft of ‘policies and measures aimed at promoting healthier and more sustainable diets’. In effect, the partially state-funded Sustain was just telling those in power what they wanted to hear: that is, people’s consumption habits are a problem for which there is a state-led solution.

If Sustain hadn’t been so eager to laud the idea of a sugary-drinks tax, complete with Lib-Con-friendly guff about how taxing Fanta Orange will make society ‘fairer’ (yes, the report really does say that), it might have noticed that this tax is more than a little problematic.

For a start, there’s a very obvious paradox to a supposedly behaviour-adjusting tax. That is, as a tax it is supposedly meant to increase state revenue – this is something that Sustain itself asserts, claiming that the extra £1 billion in tax revenue could be used to fund free school meals. Yet, if the tax really did succeed in discouraging people from buying fizzy pop, by pricing them out of consumption, then tax revenues would fall. A sin-tax contains, therefore, contradictory objectives.

A cynic might suggest that deficit-conscious sin-tax advocates are all too aware that this will be a successful revenue-raising measure. That’s because, to the extent that such measures are designed to cut consumption, they don’t work, as Yale public-health professor Jason Fletcher discovered when looking at the effect of extant soft-drinks taxes in several US states. Having analysed soft-drink-sales tax data from 1988-2006, along with the National Health Examination and Nutrition Survey, he found only a moderate reduction in soft-drink consumption, which had no effect on adolescent obesity since the reduction was ‘completely offset by increases in consumption of other high-calorie drinks’. Furthermore, in 2010, the economist Roland Sturm concluded that soft-drink taxes ‘do not substantially affect overall levels of soda consumption or obesity rates’.

In fact, so ineffective are taxes on food or drink as a prohibitive measure, that last year the Danish government withdrew a saturated-fat tax it had only introduced in 2011. As Rob Lyons wrote at the time: ‘it turns out, unsurprisingly, that slapping taxes on things doesn’t necessarily persuade people to consume less of them. So Danes either went downmarket in their buying habits by buying cheaper products, or popped across the border to Sweden or Germany to buy their fatty foods there instead. The only real effect was to hit the profits of Danish companies.’

And what of the other putative claim – that fizzy-drink consumption ‘costs the NHS billions every year’? Again, the assertion doesn’t really stand up for one pretty obvious reason (aside from the fact that for every 60 pence spent on Coca-Cola, 10 pence already goes to the state): if it is accepted that obese people have shorter lives than their non-obese fellows, then they actually save the state cash. As public-health professor Klim McPherson concluded in a 2008 review: ‘Obese people cost less because individuals die younger and hence with less chronic morbidity associated with old age…’

But in many ways, the inefficacy, the logical inconsistency and the sheer impracticality of taxing sugary drinks is beside the point. Because even if sugary drinks taxes were shown to be effective in their stated aims, even if the twin imperatives of raising revenue and discouraging consumption could be harmonised, and even if the whole thing really did save the NHS billions, it would still be wrong. And that’s because the whole enterprise rests on a damaging assumption: namely, that a co-mingling of public-health lobby groups and politicians know better than we do how we should live our lives.

They assume to know what is in our best interests, they assume to know the healthy ends according to which we should live our lives. And they therefore seek to order our lives to meet these ends, with a nanny here and a nudge there. And it is that issue of autonomy which is the real problem with a behaviour-modifying measure like the proposed tax on sugary drinks. It represents the further denigration of our capacity to make even the most mundane decisions about how best to live our lives.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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