The heading above is my stock response whenever anyone asks do I take sugar in my tea. I am however, a self-confessed chocaholic and I prefer proper fizzy drinks – not the anaemic ones that don’t have any sugar in them. And what is more, I don’t think that is any of Sarah Wollaston MP’s damned business. The Commons Health Select Committee that she chairs has just recommended a 10% ‘sugar tax’ on fizzy drinks, along with a number of other recommendations including product reformulation to reduce sugar content the legal mandating of reduced portion sizes is also on the agenda along with more labelling requirements.
On the BBC News site this story was presented under the heading “MPs Back Sugar Tax” – er…well, seven of the committee of nine did so – that’s just one percent of the total number of MPs in the Commons. We can take some comfort from the fact that two of the committee didn’t back this. Conservative MPs’ Andrea Jenkyns and Andrew Percy both dissented, with Jenkyns calling the proposal “patronising nonsense”. “Here, here” say I!
This whole campaign has been led by ‘Action on Sugar’ – a crackpot group of healthist zealots who see sugar as one of the ‘industries of addiction’ that need curtailing by government. In fact these people believe sugar consumption should be reduced by half – which would take us back to the levels of consumption last seen during the Second World War when sugar was rationed. This really shouldn’t surprise us. Whenever ‘safe levels’ of alcohol consumption are discussed anti-alcohol campaigners use 1952 as their starting point to show how much alcohol consumption has risen. This is because in 1952 rationing had just ended and people were pretty skint – so if that’s your comparator the increase in consumption is made to look pretty steep.
We hear a lot about austerity, but taking us back to war-time levels of consumption because it is “good for us” is a bizarre ambition. If we want to tackle obesity why pick on sugar? A gram of sugar contains just four calories; a gram of alcohol seven calories and a gram of fat nine calories. People need to eat less and exercise more – and that is sensible advice, but it should be up to you if you want to take it.
Sugar isn’t just about sweetening things – it gives food texture and acts as a natural preservative. It shouldn’t need pointing out, but it does, that a sugar tax is regressive and will disproportionately affect consumers with low incomes. In any event sin taxes rarely affect consumption by much and reduce obesity not at all. Mexico’s sugar tax reduced consumption by just six per cent and had no discernible impact on obesity. Denmark also embraced the idea of taxing its citizens into anorexia with a fat tax and a tax on soft drinks. It abandoned both.
So, with all this evidence why does Sarah Wollaston and her ever-so-cute poster boy Jamie Oliver still champion this idea? For Oliver this is just another way of raising his profile although he’s empty-headed enough to believe it will work; for Wollaston I suspect this measure is at least as important symbolically as it is instrumentally. She is desperate for a victory over Big Soda now that the virtual demise of minimum unit pricing makes a victory over Big Alcohol increasingly unlikely.
I really don’t understand what Wollaston is doing in the Conservative Party. Her ideology is state control of large swathes of industry so that ‘public health’ campaigners become the arbiters of the consumption patterns of the nation. What about free markets and choice Sarah? No doubt Big Business will be blamed if the government sticks to its policy of not introducing a sugar tax. After all, that’s what socialists do. I think you should cross the floor and join Jeremy’s party Sarah – I believe he has a nice allotment and bakes his own scones. I don’t know if he puts jam on them though!