The Government’s multi-pronged anti-obesity strategy seems well considered and evidence-based though it was always going to be criticised for what’s not on the table – a sin tax. A tax on sugary drinks would have been a powerful signal to consumers, according to no less an authority than the Prime Minister’s special science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman. The problem is that selective dissuasive taxes are notoriously hard to design and there are at least as many cogent arguments against such taxes as for them.
Foremost among them is the lack of evidence that they work. Yes, they have curbed tobacco use, but food presents a much more complex challenge. Denmark abandoned its pioneering fat tax after less than a year because it was badly designed, unwieldy and inflationary. Mexico’s tax on sugar-laden fizzy drinks has been in effect for less than two years and there is as yet no conclusive data on its impact – despite claims from pro-tax activists.
Some early figures show consumption is steady; others that drinks companies are selling fewer products. But wider economic factors are an influence, and until there is more conclusive data, we simply do not know if the Mexican model might work here. Tellingly, they are moving to reduce it.
In an increasingly shrill debate on the issue, the public is being vigorously browbeaten and, as often as not, confused and misled. The processed-food industry has an obvious vested interest in avoiding an extra tax, and much of its advocacy should be viewed with skepticism.
But pro-tax activists are no less financially invested, depending as they do on public money for their research and campaigning. What they most conspicuously fail to highlight is that sales of sweet soft drinks are already falling quite markedly – without special taxes and without a concomitant decrease in obesity.
Consumers are already acting – admittedly not as quickly as doctors would like – on the message from health crusaders that no good comes from drinking the empty calories of sugar, water and chemicals. The fear that we’ve hit Peak Coke is the reason the industry is increasingly trying to reframe its products as part of a healthy active lifestyle, dog-whistling that you can eat and drink junk provided you exercise enough. They’re also making some of it a little less unhealthy.
New Zealand’s Frucor, for example, has been lobbying MPs about the virtues of its reduced-sugar stevia-sweetened drinks. Reduced-sugar Coke Life has cheekily pitched itself as a contribution towards the fight against obesity.
Inconveniently for everyone’s argument, however, is that the consumer’s dawning rejection of sugary drinks has not been accompanied by a reversal in the rise of obesity. On the contrary, we are getting fatter, even while drinking less of the stuff.
This is a frustrating set of messages for public policy-makers. Such drinks account for less than 2% of our calorie intake and there are all manner of other sugary and fatty foods people should cut down on. And cheap though they are, there’s nothing to stop people making sweet drinks at home for even less money. A black market in SodaStream fizz may seem laughable, but if bought drinks became expensive, that’s the crazy inevitability.
What no one can dispute is that children, particularly those of low-income parents, drink too much cheap, nutrient-free high-calorie soft drink. There is compelling evidence from health professionals that children suffer disproportionately from the impact of the drinks. We can have all the philosophical arguments in the world about education, free will and parental choice but none of those arguments applies to our youngest citizens, least of all those with rotten teeth and excess weight that will be the source of great misery all their lives.
Labour leader Andrew Little shrewdly observes that, however flawed a fat and/or sugar tax may be, legislators will eventually have no choice but to introduce one, unless the food industry shows genuine and responsible leadership and voluntarily restrains its tendency to put profit-making ahead of children’s health. Coincidentally, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has stepped up as an exemplar, making soft drinks expensive in his restaurants.
The fast-food industry could easily cross-subsidise healthy drinks for kids, such as milk and water, with its own impost on fizzy drinks. We’ve seen voluntary curtailment of toys as fast-food bait. Soft drinks substitution must be next if food companies are to be seen as part the solution rather than the cause of so much avoidable unhappiness.
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