Once upon a time we were told by public health campaigners and, subsequently, nannying governments that fat was the root of our health issues. So, for decades it was throw out your butter and eat margarine, stock up on skimmed milk and low-fat yoghurts all the way. Then of course came the realisation that fat wasn’t all bad, and many of the low-fat products we consumed lack nutritional value and were probably worse for us. Not only that, but some of the dietary habits we’d adopted to replace fat were doing us harm, too many carbs and far too much…. Sugar.
Now we know that sugar is EVIL.
Learning from the fat hysteria apparently wasn’t an option, we’ve just moved onto the next public health scare. Oh well, we can now happily load up on artificial sweeteners, those well known health foods, and be smug about our new healthy diet as we await the abolition of obesity brought about by the benevolent public health lobby.
Yes, the sugar tax comes in today. A policy built on the solid foundation of people demanding ‘something must be done about obesity’ and George Osborne hastily replying, ‘here’s something!’ Or, to put it more cynically, when the former Chancellor failed to meet his economic targets (again) this was the dead cat he threw on the table. A political distraction and an act of virtue signalling rolled into one; a recipe for poor policy if ever there was one.
The case against sugar is weak, yet it’s being used as the basis for government policy amidst a foolish tunnel vision focus on sugar when obesity as a societal issue has multiple causes with physical inactivity being number one. Advocates of the tax will say it’s just one measure in a multi-layered approach, but it’s a measure that has been proven to be ineffective elsewhere.
The evidence shows that sugar taxes implemented in other countries has shown a modest short term decrease in consumption (with the figures put out by supporters of the policies often disputed) with the effect tending to fade quickly, in Mexico for example soft drinks sales are on the rise again and returned to pre-tax levels by mid-2015.
There is no evidence that sugar taxes have helped to cut body mass index or rates of obesity, the much-ballyhooed public health gains simply have not materialised. In four countries which introduced sugar taxes – Mexico, Denmark, France and Hungary – average BMI and obesity levels has increased or remained static.
As for the revenue raised, it will do nothing to provide financial support for effective policies such as promoting physical activity or bolster the NHS. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates the levy will raise £240 million in 2018-19, in terms of government spending this is nothing. It will soon fall into the black vortex of state expenditure.
George Osborne has pointed to how many drinks companies have reformulated their products as evidence of the policy already proving successful. Well, there’s a certain attraction to letting the market decide what it thinks of drinks loaded with artificial sweetener instead of sugar. The social media backlash is certainly enjoyable, and I will watch the sales figures closely over the coming year or two, but dictatorial nanny state policies restrict our freedom of choice and once principles of individual liberty are eroded they begin to crumble under further pressure.
The real problem here is that we’ve now stepped onto a slippery slope. Public health zealots now have their foot in their door and they will soon attempt to barge through and lobby the government for further expansions of the nanny state.
The focus on soft drinks is just one step. There is no tax on sugary lattes, hot chocolate and milk-based drinks or chocolate. Yet. Though now a sugar tax has been implemented it’s just a matter of time before public health lobbyists call for the tax to be increased, and then imposed on other products. The campaigning group Action on Sugar are already lobbying for 20% taxes on chocolate, you can expect more and more of your tasty treats to shrink and become more expensive.
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Once it’s decided that nanny knows best there is no end to it. Warning labels on chocolate and sweets, advertising bans, plain packaging, who knows? Public health ideologues won’t be satisfied until we’re squeezing a state issued portion of nutritious gruel out of plain foil packets. Give the killjoys an inch and they’ll take a mile.
So much has been achieved by raising awareness about the health risks of excessive consumption of sugary drinks. Sugary drink consumption has fallen 45% since 2003, and companies have brought out new products with low or zero sugar to cater for their consumers concerns. Pepsi doesn’t even market it’s full sugar drink anymore.
I’ll leave the last word to Coca-Cola who have learned from the disaster of the ‘New Coke’ debacle:
“Coca-Cola Classic is one of the few brands that will be subject to the new tax as we have decided not to change the recipe. Consumers tell us not to change it and we believe they should be able to choose a Coca-Cola Classic if that’s the drink they want.
“If they want a Coca-Cola without sugar, we have Diet Coke and Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, which will not be subject to the tax.
There is no evidence from anywhere in the world that shows taxing soft drinks reduces obesity rates.”
Amen to that.