It’s a sad fact, but it seems increasingly obvious that our personal freedom is under threat from those who should know better. In recent years — perhaps owing to the absence of overtly political leadership — the state has advanced further and further into our everyday lives. To my mind, nothing better exemplifies this threatening march against freedom than interference in our lunch boxes. The swirling rumours and proposals related to our food choices range from the so-called ‘sugar tax’, to calorie caps, meat taxes, and every other blockade against tasty-sounding meals you can imagine. Before we get to the facts about the effectiveness of an approach like the sugar tax, I have to be up front about my innate ideological opposition to this kind of policy.
That’s not to say I don’t understand the many arguments made about our nation’s health, however — or that I’m not concerned by claims about children’s unhealthy lifestyles. Often, the statistics speak for themselves. In my view, the state should have huge involvement in dealing with these issues, and it has one major opportunity to do so. That opportunity is called the education system. It’s where each of us spends at least 14 years of our lives listening to advice about healthy living and exercise — where we sit making Venn diagrams of different kinds of food. The point of the education system should be to equip young people to be able to make their own way in life: to make their own choices, and be responsible for themselves. And a rush to legislate against personal freedom is a nothing short of a stark admission that parents and our education system are failing in this task.
With the politics out in the open, it’s also important to recognise that these personal-freedom policy approaches simply don’t work. The vast majority of people say that the sugar tax has had no impact on their lifestyle choices,1 so it’s simply not having the impact that was sold to us in terms of pushing people towards healthier living. At the same time, it’s only bringing in half the revenue that the Treasury had forecast, with £250m now predicted for this year, rather than the £520m promised — money that was meant to benefit our young people, funding schemes focused on sport and exercise in schools.2
Those backing the sugar tax regularly point to the way tobacco taxes work as a factor in the reduction in cigarette use, without considering the obvious differences between the two policy areas. There are only a very limited number of alternatives to smoking tobacco — most commonly vaping, these days — and all of them are healthier than bog-standard smoking. With soft drinks, though, it’s different. And healthier options tend to be more expensive than sugary alternatives. Take energy drinks as an example: if you want sugar-free Red Bull you pay up to or beyond £2, whereas you can buy some of the least-healthy energy drinks on the market for 25p. It’s not a fair comparison.
When you consider the financial implications in more detail, it also turns out that the extra cost in tax is more likely to have an impact on the poorest people.3 The lowest-income households typically consume more sugary drinks, and spend a higher proportion of their income on these products. We also know that low incomes and poverty often correlate with poor educational attainment, which brings me back to my point about the value of quality state education.
The sugar tax isn’t the only example of state intervention that concerns me. Last year, when I heard about the proposed ‘meat tax’, I rushed immediately to find a full English breakfast to quell my anxiety. Now, I should be clear that — thankfully — this isn’t something that the government has yet imposed on us, but the proposal is the product of university research. Researchers from the University of Oxford have argued that we need to reduce red-meat consumption for the benefit of the healthcare system, and that a tax would be the best way to achieve this.4 But, again, who is it who would be most affected by this tax? That’s right — poorer households. The price of processed meat would rise by 79 per cent, whilst expensive items, like sirloin steaks, already out of the reach of many wallets, would see a rise of just 14 per cent.
Such a policy would increase the tax burden on the poorest by much more than it would the rich, whilst further upping the proportion of the poorest families’ income that is spent on basic food shopping. They already spend more on basics like their weekly shop than wealthier people, and a meat tax — a truly regressive measure — would only further entrench this divide. Perhaps the poorest people in our country would be able to afford more leisure activities, which would help them stay healthy, if we weren’t so intent on reducing their disposable income through taxation.
These are just two examples of the worrying policy trend I described above — policy that is badly designed, and ultimately only serves to reduce the choices available to the poorest. Basic food shopping is something we all have to do, and none of us appreciates rising prices, particularly when this comes as a result of policies that don’t even have the positive impacts we were promised. But, for the poorest in our society, such an approach means an ever-increasing percentage of their income is spent on food and drink. This reduces their disposable income and limits their choice.
If we truly want to help people to make better decisions about their health, then the government’s place in this should not be to tax the poor, but to educate children more effectively, and to do more to identify and support those families where children are not taught about these matters at home. I hope that’s a mindset we can rediscover sooner rather than later.
1 Ceylan, A. ‘Sugar Tax has Little Impact On Consumer Behaviour’, Nielsen, 10 October 2018.
2 Morley, K. ‘Sugar tax making half as much as money as the government expected’, Telegraph, 20 November 2018.
3 Snowdon, C. ‘Don’t believe the propaganda – sin taxes are designed to punish the poor’, Spectator Health, 4 April 2018.
4 Springman, M., Mason-D’Croz, D., Robinson, S., Wiebe, K., Godfray, C., Rayner, M., & Scarborough, P. ‘Health-motivated taxes on red and processed meat: A modelling study on optimal tax levels and associated health impacts’, PLoS ONE, November 2018.