Is a fat or sugar tax a good idea? Nope.

Sugar cubes and "sugar tax" inscription

This is an opinion piece and does not fully reflect Supplement Centre.

If any politician mentions the word “tax” most normal people make an inward groan. After all, who wants to pay more for anything, or have more money taken from them?

However when George Osborne announced a two tier levy on sugary drinks, many rejoiced. Jamie Oliver danced a little bit and many saw it is a blow against the ever growing bastard that is obesity.

Before I tell you why they should stop dancing, let’s get a bit of background shall we?

What are the taxes?

Unless you have lived in a cave, or just find anything news related dull, then you may have missed that Jamie Oliver spent a long time crying, campaigning and in general trying to get the government to do more to get “us” to cut down on sugar. So sometime after publishing “Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action”, which showed that soft drinks are the greatest source of sugar for those ages 4-18, the UK government announced that a tax on sugary drink would be brought in in 2018. The sugar tax focuses on fizzy drinks, with milk based drinks, pure fruit juices and small producers being exempt.

This is not the first such tax on sugar however. Many other countries have introduced them, perhaps most notably Mexico, joint with the UK as the 32nd most obese country in the world, when looking at the amount of obese people as a percentage (all based on BMI). Mexico brought the tax in for similar reasons as the UK, though an olive oil obsessed chef on a Vespa was presumably nowhere to be seen.

More recently, the state government of Kerala, India, brought in a “fat tax” on pizzas, tacos, burgers and other fatty foods in “branded” restaurants. The thought behind this is of course, once again to promote more healthy eating, and a return to “more traditional” recipes, but as the finance minister admitted himself, to bring in more money. An estimated £1.1m in fact.

So the government gets more money, people are deterred from eating and drinking bad food and in general, everyone is healthier. So what’s wrong with that?

A lot.

The roots will still be broken


Image source: Wikipedia
Painting the leaves wouldn’t fix this tree

It is much better to eradicate something bad, like we managed to do with smallpox, than to continually treat it for years and years. The sugar tax does not try to eradicate obesity, it does not try to treat it either, it just tries to make it more difficult for people to be unhealthy. If eating and drinking copious amounts of fat and sugar is ingrained in their psyche and our culture, it won’t have any real impact.

In Bolivia, where McDonald’s have been previously been “banned” and blamed for obesity by El Presidente Evo Morales, you can get a 30p chorizo roll, with as much mayo as you want. So you can tax big companies, fizzy drinks and the like all you want, but if someone is to make a deep fried pizza or [place food that’s bad for you here], I’m pretty sure they will find a way.

In Kerala, where diabetes is high, you might well cut down on consumption of burgers, but until the demand for deep fried samosas dies off, you’re not going to solve anything.

A much better idea would be to focus on teaching people how to eat healthy on a budget (as finances are often used a scapegoat when it comes to bad eating), make nutrition part of the curriculum and look at advertising restrictions for food and drink that is bad for you (though that in itself is problematic).

When I did GCSE food technology in the mid 00s, I spent more time filling in hygiene cards than I did learning how to cook. If someone can make their own sauce, butcher their own meat and in general has an idea of what foods do what, they will be less reliant on ready meals, sugary sauces and will therefore eat less crap, and save some money too.

A tax just hits the already unhealthy harder, and doesn’t solve the issue at its core, which education can.

Someone sack the number crunchers

According to Will Quince, Conservative politician and MP for Colchester, the UK’s sugar levy is not actually a worthwhile tax financially. The tax is expected to raise £520 million a year, however because this levy will actively raise costs, and increase inflation, the country will borrow more. £1 billion more in fact.

Now you may well say that the tax is not about making financial sense, and you’d be right (to an extent). But if a tax is ineffective, it costs you and me money as it impacts on the economy. The aforementioned inflation could well cause healthy food to go up as a result.

Even if we ignore inflation, wouldn’t £1 billion be better spent on actively educating people on their diet or getting people to exercise?

Theories change

vox cancer chart

Image source: Vox
The chart that kills and saves you in one go!

According to this article by Vox, wine, coffee, butter, milk and eggs have all had studies that show they cure cancer, and cause cancer. So while you can indeed take a view on it, it’s clear that we don’t know everything.

It is very unlikely that sugar is suddenly going to become a cure all, muscle building fuel of the gods, but it is silly for places like Kerala and Bolivia to aggressively go after fat in the way they have. McDonald’s and cheap, super-high-fat foods are not good for you, but as is the theory now, cutting out all fat is also not good for you either.

Remember, many now think that the government’s advice on fat is outdated, so this move is nothing but reactive, and that leads me onto the next point.

Jamie Oliver should not be a catalyst

The whole “fight against sugar” and healthier school meals has only really happened because of high profile campaigns by one Jamie Oliver, and of course, because of social media. This is fine to a degree as it sometimes doesn’t matter where the positive change comes from, as long as it comes from somewhere.

But what it does tell you, is that the government doesn’t have a long term plan. Now this isn’t surprising as, shown by Cameron and Corbyn, all politicians care about is staying in power (they might not succeed), but it is slightly worrying that a celebrity chef is the main catalyst for change, not a real desire to make the country healthier.

And while we’re on the government…

Let’s all punish the good kids

I wasn’t a perfect student at school, I wasn’t the worst. I once got sent out for farting for example, but I did my homework most of the time, turned up to lessons and didn’t spend my lunchtimes smoking at the back of the bike shed. So when we all got bollocked and had a lunch time detention because one kid had lit a gas tap, us “good” kids got a bit annoyed. We wanted to play football.

So if you manage to exercise, regulate what you eat and in general take care of yourself, and you decide you want a can of something as it’s hot and you have a sweet craving, then you’re being punished because the “bad” kids couldn’t stop eating doughnuts.

Yes it might be in the interest of your health, but someone has to have some personal responsibility somewhere. You are taught to not let the actions of a few represent the many, and the same should apply here.

But it works in Mexico?

According to Vice earlier this month, there has been a study done that shows a 5.1% consumption drop since the “junk food tax” came into effect. This study doesn’t take into account what the people are then eating and drinking, it doesn’t take into account street food, and though there is correlation between a tax and a drop, there is no proof that the two are linked. The tactic of a tax does not solve the problem at source, it does not get people to be active and it does not promote a healthy alternative.

All these taxes punish those who do not need consume too much, all of the taxes will cost us more money in the long run and all of the taxes stink of the people in charge having no long term plan.

If a national leader was to take charge, and try and promote a culture based around eating healthily and having some self control, then we’d be in a better position. How they do that is of course up for debate. But until we get that change, we’ll have reactive moves like these taxes, which are nothing more than poorly applied plasters, barely covering gaping wounds.

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