There is no question that Britain is facing an obesity crisis, and has been for some time. The latest proposal from TV chef Jamie Oliver and others for a ‘sugar tax’, however, is not the way to go about tackling it.
A sugar tax is flawed in both its logic and its implementation. It assumes that behaviour can easily be changed by increasing prices and it accepts that doing so would punish everyone because of the habits and health risks of a few. It also assumes that the money it raises can demonstrably improve outcomes.
There is no question that many people – and indeed many children – consume far more sugar than is good for them. That, though, is a symptom of a lack of understanding about food, diet and exercise. It is a consequence of parenting, family eating habits, and of poor choices. It cannot be solved simply by jacking up the price of a can of fizzy drink.
Slapping an additional levy on sugar is a blunt instrument that holds no guarantee of success. Indeed, ‘sin taxes’ often defy conventional wisdom and create perverse outcomes that hit the poor hardest. As Dominic Lawson argued in The Sunday Times last weekend, the evidence from tobacco duties shows that whereas you would expect that spending a higher proportion of your income on cigarettes would provide the poorest with the greatest incentive to stop, this has not happened. Smoking rates among the poorest in society have barely budged, while the middle classes have quit in huge numbers. You can never guarantee, therefore, that you will achieve what you want or that you won’t also create unintended consequences.
Last Friday I went on BBC radio to argue against the proposal. In the recorded snippets of public opinion prior to my interview, one person complained that it was irresponsible for sugar to be made so easily available and so cheap. This remark is exactly what is wrong with this debate. What is irresponsible is for someone to choose to allow their children to consume excessive amounts of sugar, knowing the health risks. What is irresponsible is to think that the state should charge everyone else more for a product because someone is making a poor choice about how they balance their diet.
I am not arguing that nothing needs to change, but rather that it is not a change than can or should come from government. A sugar tax is unlikely to change behaviour because the causes are more complex than the price of a bag of sweets. We should be educating people more about the long term dangers of taking in too much sugar and not exercising enough, rather than taking more money from them and claiming it’s for their own good.
Taxes like this rarely produce the simple outcome their proponents insist they will. We should not be so quick to penalise rather than to educate, because – in the long run – the carrot is always more effective than the stick.