FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Sugar Wars and Nanny’s Demands

“Superficially rational, there are in truth few instincts more fundamentally illiberal than the drive towards preventative policymaking.”

-Henry Hill, CapX, Mar 21, 2016

Fat wars, sugar wars, salt wars. Health humanitarian crusaders; predatory sugar drink companies; and government accountants. The modern age of nutritionist bitching, with its common cast, has again moved into prominent focus with the discussion about taxing sugary items – more specifically sugary drinks.

The British Exchequer was certainly salivating at the prospect of more revenue (approximately £530m), though the issue has been sold as a health one. Austerity Britain is on the hunt for more money to fill the gaps in Chancellor George Osborne’s already deficient budget, and taxes dressed up as medical initiatives is one way of going about it.

The sugar tax, which comes into effect in two years’ time, targets drinks with more than five grams of sugar per 100ml, with higher rates applying to eight grams of sugar per 100ml. Soft drink companies are crying foul over discrimination. Coca Cola argues that the policy is inconsistently applied – the 8p charge per can avoiding milkshakes and fruit juices. Some sugar options are sweeter than others when it comes to the tax collector.

Such inconsistencies did not trouble the delighted chef and food campaigner Jamie Oliver, who has been beating the drum of sugar reform for years. “It’s a profound move that will ripple around the world. It didn’t think we’d get it.”

The move has been opposed by some groups who smell a revenue grab in the works. As the organisation People Against Sugar Tax (proudly free of funding from food and drinks companies) argues, “We already have one. It’s called VAT.” In their campaign, they make the case that such a tax “would be ineffective, regressive, unfair and unwanted.”

The PAST group have also received the news from the Office for Budget Responsibility that implementing the tax would cost a billion pounds. Chief executive Brook Whelan smugly noted that such an amount “could pay for the salaries of 14,900 new nurses for the next three years.”

Another critique has also been offered. Implementing such a sugar tax might well increase sugar consumption by changing food choices for the worse. A culinary migration might well be initiated, with drinkers taking up other sweet substitutes.

What, then, of examples? Mexico stole a march on this topic, having its own “very fat problem” with 71 percent of its population considered overweight or obese. In January 2014, the state where soft drink is king imposed a tax on high sugar drinks, covering those with added syrup, powder, flavour extract, caloric sweeteners or sugar.

What, then, of the evaluative part of this whole policy? Scientists and policy wonks have latched onto one: an unprecedented BMJ observational study by the Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública and the University of North Carolina suggesting declining consumption in sugar drinks in the wake of such an excise.

It found in studying the behaviour of 6,253 Mexican households providing 205,112 observations in 52 cities with more than 50,000 inhabits that “in the short term the tax on sugar sweetened beverages is generally passed on through prices…to consumers, who reduced their purchases of taxed beverages.”

For all its strengths, the authors conceded in the study that “causality cannot be established, as other changes are occurring concurrent with the tax, including economic changes, health campaigns about sugar sweetened beverages, and antiobesity programs.”

Such excises invariably smack of nanny-statism, though the old question always is what nanny actually intends. Doctors and health experts such as epidemiologist Anna Peeters of Deakin University speak of the role of the tax in creating “a culture of healthy eating”. But nannies are not necessarily truthful, sporting the occasional white lie for consumption by the gullible and young. Osborne is a case in point, floundering desperately to plug gaping financial holes.

In Australia, where the debate is also raging, commentators favouring all concerned nanny find her didactically instructive to the sugar fiend. That fiend is to be reformed and reconditioned for his and her own good. Johnny Junkfood is to become Susie Muesli.

“It’s not about the nanny state treating people like babies,” claims Peter Fitzsimmons from a country that treasures paternal, occasionally punishing direction, “it is the state saying, ‘listen, you bastards, we wish you wouldn’t keep pouring sugar water and the like down your throats, but if you’re gunna, you may well start paying us now for the hospital bills you’ll inevitably face later”.

Since most humans are disposed to be Aristotle’s social animals, health is itself the property of the communal, a debate of how society orders it. But all too often, the health motive is concealed by others.

This is collectivised control that has been analogised to controlling smoking, though not all in the anti-sugar lobby are necessarily in the business of putting food companies out of business. (The same cannot be said about anti-tobacco wars, where the abolition of the tobacco company remains the utopia of campaigners.)

An effective system, however, will be impaired if the intention is one of demonising sugar through the guise of public health authoritarianism. Nor should it be assumed that raising the cost of a product in high demand necessarily diminishes consumption – elasticity, and other unhealthy options, will compete. Such health policies invariably assume that the making of a choice has to arise from the cajoling nature of middle class nanny, concerned or otherwise with the actual welfare of citizens.

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled Again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Ishmael Reed
Hollywood’s Last Days?
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
LEJ Rachell
The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of
Lawrence Ware
All Hell Broke Out in Oklahoma
Franklin Lamb
Tehran’s Syria: Lebanon Colonization Project is Collapsing
Donny Swanson
Janus v. AFSCME: What’s It All About?
Will Podmore
Brexit and the Windrush Britons
Brian Saady
Boehner’s Marijuana Lobbying is Symptomatic of Special-Interest Problem
Julian Vigo
Google’s Delisting and Censorship of Information
Patrick Walker
Political Dynamite: Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement for a People’s Party
Fred Gardner
Medical Board to MDs: Emphasize Dangers of Marijuana
Rob Seimetz
We Must Stand In Solidarity With Eric Reid
Missy Comley Beattie
Remembering Barbara Bush
Wim Laven
Teaching Peace in a Time of Hate
Thomas Knapp
Freedom is Winning in the Encryption Arms Race
Mir Alikhan
There Won’t be Peace in Afghanistan Until There’s Peace in Kashmir
Robert Koehler
Playing War in Syria
Tamara Pearson
US Shootings: Gun Industry Killing More People Overseas
John Feffer
Trump’s Trade War is About Trump Not China
Morris Pearl
Why the Census Shouldn’t Ask About Citizenship
Ralph Nader
Bill Curry on the Move against Public Corruption
Josh Hoxie
Five Tax Myths Debunked
Leslie Mullin
Democratic Space in Adverse Times: Milestone at Haiti’s University of the Aristide Foundation
Louis Proyect
Syria and Neo-McCarthyism
Dean Baker
Finance 202 Meets Economics 101
Abel Cohen
Forget Gun Control, Try Bullet Control
Robert Fantina
“Damascus Time:” An Iranian Movie
David Yearsley
Bach and Taxes
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail