OK, I hold my hands up – I did watch ‘Mary Poppins’ in 1964 – but I was only 15 years-old! But George Osborne seems to have watched it more recently if the announcement of a sugar levy in his Budget is anything to go by. But if he hoped the sugar levy would distract from his cuts to benefits for the disabled, then the resignation of Iain Duncan-Smith a couple of days later scuppered that one. As Harold Wilson put it: “A week is a long time in politics.”
But what are we to make of the sugar levy? Is this a genuine attempt to make us healthier, or just another cynical ploy to appease a noisy campaign group, whilst distracting us from the cuts? What is interesting is how the management of expectations has kicked-in since the measure was announced. Before the Budget Jamie Oliver was claiming that a sugar tax would be a “game changer”; then after the announcement, in a moment of euphoria that must have been almost like a sugar-rush, he proclaimed that the measure would “send ripples around the world”. Then he came down to earth with a bump and said it was just a “symbolic slap” for the soft drinks’ industry. From game-changer to symbolic slap whilst hardly pausing to take breath.
The campaign group Action on Sugar is naturally delighted, although they have always said that it is just a “useful first step”. And this is what concerns me most: that these types of policy proposals are always presented to us by campaigners in the media as isolated measures. The truth is they are door-openers to much wider measures that will see state regulation of the food chain and mass product reformulation. If the problem, as presented to us, is that the incidence of obesity at the population level is too high - something like a third of the adult population are said to be obese - then are we seriously supposed to believe that a sugar levy that will raise the price of a can of pop from 69 pence to 77 pence will lead to a measurable reduction in population levels of obesity? Because if not, why introduce it?
Here we come back to the “useful first step” scenario. Certainly a levy that will raise £520 million in its first year will be a useful first step for a government desperate to fill an £18 billion hole, but what will the next steps be? Fortunately, we don’t have to guess, because Action on Sugar have, at the request of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, provided some helpful suggestions. Here they are:
- Reduce added sugars by 40 per cent by 2020 by reformulating foods (a similar rogramme to salt).
- Reduce fat in ultra-processed foods, particularly saturated fat – 15 per cent reduction by 2020.
- Cease all forms of marketing of ultra-processed, unhealthy foods and drinks to children.
- Disassociate physical activity with obesity via banning junk food sports sponsorships.
- Limit the availability of ultra-processed foods and sweetened soft drinks as well as reducing portion size.
- Incentivise healthier food and discourage drinking of soft drinks by planning to introduce a sugar tax.
- Remove responsibility for nutrition from the Department of Health and return it back to an independent agency.
Well, number 6 is in the bag, so watch this space.
At the heart of all these proposals is the implicit belief that government must regulate because consumers are either too dumb to make their “sensible choices”, or else they are hopelessly addicted to products that have been deliberately spiked with sugar, salt and fat – ingredients that titillate the taste buds – and that ‘Big Food’ has addiction as a core part of its strategy. This fantasy of corporate coercion is at the heart of ‘healthism’ – the ideology of ‘the health of the nation.’
In fact there is no market failure in relation to sugary drinks – all the major producers sell sugar-free, low carb and calorie-free versions – Coke Zero and Diet Coke are just two examples that come to mind. But that isn’t enough for the healthist zealots. ‘Aspartame’, which is used as a sugar-substitute in many of these sugar-free alternatives, is then pilloried as being even worse for your health by a series of scare stories which have precious little to do with science. Read “Aspartame – the truth” on the NHS Choices website if you don’t believe me.
The puritanical nature of the sugar-phobes is thus plain for all to see. They won’t be satisfied until all food is bland, tasteless and “good for your health.” The fact is that many of the things that give us pleasure involve consumption. And many of these things are bad for us – at least if consumed to excess. But we don’t have to make a zero-sum choice between maximising pleasure or maximising health, most people seek a balance summed up by the old maxim “A Little Bit of What You fancy Does You Good, but Everything in Moderation.” I’d rather decide for myself what those trade-offs should be, I don’t need the state to do it for me.