Flat White

A sugar tax is another attack on freedom and personal responsibility

1 May 2018

4:29 PM

1 May 2018

4:29 PM

Won’t somebody please think of the adults? If there’s one thing we know well in our great southern continent, it’s the timeless truth that grown-ups cannot be trusted to make their own decisions. Why else would we spend millions in tax dollars every year in grants to activist groups who tell us how to live and demand tax hikes on our favourite vices when not everyone toes their line.  We now pay far more for alcohol and tobacco than most of the developed world.

In return for the millions these taxes raise for government coffers to pay for vital things like overpriced submarines, ‘safe schools’ social engineering programs and research grants for oyster farming, what do we get? Rates of alcoholism which exceed countries that tax booze far less than we do and the only smoking cessation rate in the Western world that has stagnated after rising for decades.

The nanny state lobby needn’t be too worried. After all, when the evidence doesn’t go their way or the public and politicians don’t buy their line, blaming the process is always an option.

Yesterday’s Four Corners propaganda piece for “big public health” made this abundantly clear. It featured comments from the Obesity Policy Coalition (funded by your taxes) bemoaning the fact that business and industry are even represented in committees that determine the rules and regulations behind programs concerning them, such as the healthy food partnership and health star rating systems. Never mind the thousands of regional Australian jobs potentially impacted by regulations to the industry; the nannies, after all, know what’s best.

This would be a great time to point out what the evidence says about sugar taxes and similar nanny-state propositions. We know that they have not reduced obesity rates in the four countries (Denmark, Mexico, Hungary and France) that have experimented with them. We know that American states which have implemented similar soft drink taxes have not seen material impacts on their obesity rates. We also know that if obesity is the real issue, it doesn’t quite make sense to single out sugar for taxation when falls in sugar consumption in recent decades have occurred concurrently with rising obesity rates. Of the five Australian research papers calling for a sugar tax, none establish a link to the correction of the ‘negative externality’ they are meant to address – namely, obesity and reducing it.

But even putting all these points aside, sugar taxes are fundamentally immoral because they punish people for making free and informed choices to indulge themselves using their hard-earned cash. When we use the tax system to single out drinking, eating or other human pleasures rather than immoderate consumption of these products which is the ultimate issue, we send the implicit message that human adults cannot be trusted to exercise these activities responsibly and diminish the role of individual accountability as a result.

Research on alcohol policy shows some evidence for this. Countries which tax alcohol less and have a generally more permissive attitude to alcohol, such as those of the Mediterranean, have far lower rates of alcohol-fuelled violence and binge drinking than those of Scandinavia, Australia and the UK which tax alcohol more and see alcohol as a ‘license to transgress’ which is inherently tied to anti-social behaviours. This is because poor behaviour is seen more as an issue for the individual to address and be responsible for rather than something for government or authority to be responsible for correcting.

Leviathan, coercive policies aimed at changing consumer choices are unlikely to fix issues such as obesity and alcoholism which stem from a complex nexus of factors. ‘Sin taxes’ overwhelmingly punish those of us who responsibly and moderately consume sugar, fast food, booze or any other vice. In return, they do not deliver the utopian vice-free society the public health lobby envisages.

The ultimate point of the Four Corners story was to blame the influence of companies connected to the sugar industry who are well-funded and are able to lobby those in power. Yet these companies make up a small fraction of the chorus of opposition to sugar taxes. They include workers who rely on the industry for employment, economists who point out that it’s a regressive tax which hurts the poor and consumer choice groups who believe that Australians can be trusted to make their own decisions knowing full well the health implications of sugar consumption and overindulgent eating.

Reducing obesity requires more personal responsibility and accountability, not less.

Satyajeet Marar is the Director of Policy at the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. 

The ATA has not received funding from any company, business or industry group connected to the sugar industry.

Illustration: Gracie Films/Fox Television Animation.

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