Fizzing with authoritarian intent

Having long been battling drugs, it now seems the British state is about to launch the sequel: the War on Dr Pepper.

With the war on drugs having been a resounding success, and the peddlers of other poisons, such as fatty foods, tobacco and alcohol, on the back foot, what we need is a government-backed campaign to target yet more of our degenerate consumption habits. After all, shadowy corporations with names like Schweppes and Coca-Cola are pushing a lethal concoction of syrup, sugar, aspartame, phosphoric acid, brominated vegetable oil, acesulfame and a whole host of other sinister-sounding ingredients. Governments the world over must unite for a global war on soda.

The Liberal Democrats, being as illiberal as ever, are taking up the mantle of the anti-soda war in Britain. At the upcoming Lib Dem party conference, the party will argue for the need for a fizzy-drink tax, presumably on the predictable grounds that it will ‘combat obesity’ while raising tax revenue. But, in reality, this is an attempt to use taxation as a means to change people’s consumption habits and lifestyles. In short, a fizzy-drink tax is a sin tax. This type of policy is not just typical of the Lib Dems; it is quite popular with the other political parties, too. All generally seem to agree that we need high taxes on alcohol and tobacco, not to mention plastic bags.

As any A-level economics student will tell you, sin taxes and other flat taxes such as VAT inevitably cost those with the least money the most as, proportionally, the tax eats into their income at a greater percentage. Ironically, however, the Lib Dem conference at which this regressive tax will be discussed is being held under the banner, ‘Fairer Tax in Tough Times’. It seems to have escaped the Lib Dems’ attention that the costs of a tax on fizzy drinks are going to fall most heavily upon the less well-off. This hardly seems to sit well with their idea of a ‘fair tax’.

Traditionally, the nominally centre-left political parties wanted to subsidise the goods that people consumed daily, making them cheaper and easier to purchase. Now however, parties like the Lib Dems are more concerned with raising the prices of certain goods in order that people make the ‘right’ consumption and lifestyle choices.

The fizzy-drink tax is part of the Lib Dems’ call for ‘policies and measures aimed at promoting healthier and more sustainable diets’. However, according to a spokesperson for the British Soft Drinks Association: ‘While the incidence of obesity has increased in recent years, the consumption of calories from soft drinks has not increased and makes up only two per cent of the average diet.’ In the USA, according to Reason magazine, ‘soda consumption per capita has remained steady over the past two decades as obesity numbers have continued to rise’. And, as shown in a study by Eric Finkelstein, an economist at Duke-National University of Singapore, a 20 per cent or even a 40 per cent tax on these beverage resulted in only the ‘smallest changes in weight over a one-year period’. Finkelstein concluded that this was because ‘individuals simply switch to other untaxed sweetened alternatives, or find alternate ways to offset the added cost of the tax, by buying in bulk or choosing generic brands’. In their rush to exorcise society of its supposedly bad consumption habits, the anti-soda warriors have neither proven a causal link between fizzy-drink consumption nor established the efficacy of sin taxes.

However, even if the evidence all pointed towards fizzy drinks causing the supposed ‘obesity’ epidemic, and even if studies suggested that a sin tax on soda would decrease consumption, taxing people into changing their ways would still be objectionable. People should be free to consume drinks, be they fizzy or alcoholic, however they want. Neither the Lib Dems nor any other political party should try to decide which types of drink we consume or in what quantity.

Politicians taking the view that they must try to decrease the amount of Sprite or Pepsi people drink amounts to treating the public like children. After all, parents often limit the amount of sugary, fizzy drinks their children can have – do we really want Clegg and Cameron treating the adult public in the same way? There is also the danger of a sugary drink tax going further, just as it has done in New York, where, following New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda taxes, even the size of soda bottles sold is now also subject to regulation. Incredibly, bottles over a certain size are banned. So before Clegg and Co. get any further ideas, hands off our drinks!

Tom Bailey is a history undergraduate at University College London. He is currently interning at spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter: @tbaileybailey

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