Sunday, 24 May 2015

A sugar tax won't make anyone thinner - just poor people poorer


The other day a Conservative minister I'd never heard of told an audience that he supported a tax on sugar. George Freeman had this to say:

“I think that where there is a commercial product which confers costs on all of us as a society, as in sugar, and where we can clearly show that the use of that leads to huge pressures on social costs, then we could be looking at recouping some of that through taxation.

“Companies should know that if you insist on selling those products, we will tax them.”

Now there are some profoundly unconservative things in this statement - the idea that me getting fat "confers costs on all of us in society" is pretty dodgy from the Party of the individual and individual rights not to mention the idea of 'social costs'. However, my concern is that, even if you accept the validity of taxing things that are bad for society, a tax on sugar is going for the wrong bogeyman.

The first thing of course is to observe that the obesity crisis (or epidemic, if you prefer a different scaremongering line) is not a consequence of our sugar consumption. Not even a little bit. I know this because, while we've been getting fatter, our sugar consumption has been falling. And not just the consumption of the evil white stuff but 'non-milk extrinsic sugars' - that's all the sugar added to food plus honey. Even more importantly - in the UK, at least - our average total calorie intake has also fallen.
UK calorie intake. Source National Diet & Nutrition Survey
You'll notice that the amount of everything consumed (except female consumption of alcohol) has dropped in the ten years from 2000/01. So we can say with a considerable degree of confidence that any increase in obesity over that period is not down to what we eat and absolutely that it isn't down to sugar. The only health condition that is directly linked to sugar is dental caries - and we know that good oral hygiene (brushing your teeth regularly, using a mouthwash and so forth) eliminates most of that risk. Taxing everyone because some people don't look after their teeth strikes me as a largely futile exercise and deeply unconservative.

The next thing is to ask whether a sugar tax (and I can only assume that this means a tax on 'non-milk extrinsic sugars' rather than just sucrose) will be sufficient to change behaviour so suddenly pounds are shed from our waists and the obesity 'crisis' is solved. Certainly the evidence from other taxes is mixed - to work the tax has to be sufficiently high to actually make a difference to behaviour and, as the Danes discovered, won't work if it's easily avoidable.

So let's assume that George Freeman gets his ignorant way and a sugar tax is imposed. The impact will be to increase the price of products containing sugars - I'm guessing no distinction will be made between sugars naturally present in the product (like the fructose on your orange juice) and sugars added to the product (like the honey in those sugar puffs). If you wander round your supermarket idly reading product descriptions, you'll find that sugars crop up - in one form or another - is many processed foods. So the impact of a sugar tax will be to increase the price of a whole host of products - from the obvious chocolate, honey and jam through to pizza, ketchup and meat pies.

Now it might be that the impact will be for manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar but that might present some challenges - the sugar's not there by accident. So what happens is that the tax (as taxes usually are) gets lumped on the price and is paid by us consumers as our purchases ping across the checkout scanner. And, assuming that the sugar tax is low, all this will mean is that everyone carries on much as before - buying the stuff they want and getting fatter or thinner depending on how much we stuff in our mouths. Except, that is, for the poorest folk who will discover that the £1.39 pizza is now a £1.49 pizza making it just a little harder to feed the family.

Unless you set the sugar tax at a rate that really changes behaviour - read this as poor people not being able to afford food - the result will be negligible. A sugar tax really won't make anyone thinner. It will just make the poor a little bit poorer.

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