Why Taxing Sugar Is Wrong

The health advocates all agree, society needs to get into shape. Obesity is apparently an epidemic and the consumption of sugar is harmful and must be stopped. Good for them, I say. I’m glad they’ve found a higher calling to make the world a healthier place. But as soon as they bring in the government, as soon as they forcibly try to change my consumption choices, then we have a problem.

Now don’t get me wrong. I eat kale as much as the next gym junkie, in fact, I am eating wild rocket as we speak as if it were a packet of chips. I see myself in the same category as the enlightened food consumer who actively makes healthy choices. I’m not like those uneducated couch sitters who eats nothing but junk and doesn’t know any better. Yet I still fight for the right of all people to be healthy or unhealthy as they want. Why? It’s a simple logic. If you believe everyone has a basic right to food, then you should by extension believe they have the right to choose what food to eat.

Without this basic choice, you lose the one main ingredient that every health professional knows is necessary for a healthy lifestyle: willpower. Without the active intention to get fit or the desire to choose lettuce over pizza, a person is never going to be healthy no matter how much you force them. Every personal trainer and dietician has come across a client who wants a celebrity body without working like a celebrity. Public health figures like Sarah Wilson or Jamie Oliver have seen it for themselves. Individually, they understand that a person will not become healthy unless they choose to be healthy. This is why they call for raised awareness and better education in the first place. But somehow, when applied collectively, they think prohibiting unhealthy products is going to end their consumption.

When something doesn’t go your way, you don’t change the goal, you change the method. The method that Wilson and Oliver are using is at best, ineffective and at worst, dangerous. Social engineering assumes that moral outcomes are best delivered by government, in this case, a healthy society.

It is clear that neither Wilson nor Oliver have extensively assessed the success of a food tax. Jamie Oliver says that all soft drinks with sugar should be banned. Sarah Wilson then makes the obvious point that this would be ineffective because it does not cross over to soft drinks with artificial sweeteners. Let us assume that they both have their way and every fizzy drink from Coke Zero to Fanta is taxed. What then? The principles of substitution show that people will simply consume calories from other sources and thus there will be a modest effect on consumption and little to no effect on health.

A tax like this is not only problematic in policy but in equity. Wilson briefly addresses how the poor may be impacted more adversely than the better off and offers subsidies on fruits and vegetables as an alternative quoting the WHO (with all due respect, I would advise the WHO to stick to the health of the human body rather than the health of the economy if they refuse to learn basic economics.) To put subsidies on these basic agricultural goods would be to take our economy into the third world. The last thing Australian farmers need is a disincentive to maximise profits and become less competitive to our Asian counterparts in the long run. If then, subsidies are avoided, then the proposed tax would adversely impact poorer consumers and deprive them of basic access to food.

I well and truly believe that Sarah Wilson and Jamie Oliver think they are doing what’s best for society. It is great of them to raise awareness of the dangers of unhealthy eating and drinking. It is most definitely a health problem that is plaguing our society and that is precisely why the government should not intervene excessively. The recent market for organic food has skyrocketed to a $1.72 billion industry. Why? Not through protectionism but through the opening of economic borders and increase in trade. Consumers want and expect better and companies are delivering.

If anyone should be on a diet, why don’t we start with the government? It’s time to end the bloating, the expansion of the public sector that encroaches on people’s ability to make better choices. Maybe if people didn’t have to spend their time paying taxes, they’d have more time to cook a healthy dinner.


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