Boris is right about sin taxes

The sugar tax is illiberal, regressive and doesn’t work.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics UK

Boris Johnson has said he is ‘seriously considering’ a sugary drinks tax. Okay, he said that in October 2015, when he was mayor of London. And to be fair to him, he did implement the idea at the café at London’s City Hall in early 2016. He’s clearly a man of principle who doesn’t just say any old nonsense to please whatever crowd he happens to be speaking to.

Oh no, that’s not right.

Fast forward to the current Conservative leadership campaign and Bozza has left a bitter taste in the mouths of health campaigners by pledging to review the current sugary drinks levy, introduced in April last year, and other ‘sin taxes’ to see if they are actually effective. He said he wanted proof that taxes on sugar ‘actually stop people from being so fat’, adding: ‘We have got to deal with obesity, but we have got to do it in a way that is evidence-based.’ Given that his rival, Jeremy Hunt, has supported extending the sugary drinks levy to milk-based drinks that are currently excluded from it, Johnson’s latest pronouncement puts him on the side of the nanny-state haters.

But does it really? Johnson has a track record of flip-flopping on policies and statements as the political winds change. His first move as mayor of London was to ban boozing on London’s public transport, hardly the action of a lifestyle liberal. So even if he does follow through on some kind of proper review, it is far from assured that the result will be a reversal of the illiberal sin taxes and other policies enacted in the past few years by both Labour and Conservative governments.

What is more interesting is the reaction to Johnson’s comments. Steve Brine, who was a junior minister in the Department of Health when the policy was introduced, called it ‘dog-whistle politics dressed up as something thinking. It is the exact opposite.’ Camilla Cavendish, a Times columnist and former policy chief for David Cameron, provided a succinct statement of the patrician thinking behind such policies: ‘Boris is talking about not clobbering people on lower incomes, but actually I think that tax is one way to help people just drink better.’

Surely we, as individuals, are the best people to decide what we should eat or drink? It seems that for public-health crusaders, it is government, informed by so-called experts (ie, lobbyists), who should fashion the ‘choice environment’ on our behalf – leading to taxes, restrictions and even outright bans.

Others have gone further. Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson – famous for losing a lot of weight through diet and exercise and infamous for his conspiracy theories – accused Johnson of ‘pandering to the regressive right’ and siding ‘with big sugar over ordinary families’. But it was the conspiracy-finder general herself, Observer columnist Carole Cadwalladr, who went furthest, declaring on Twitter: ‘Ok, so shall we play What Bung Did He Take?? Boris Johnson’s sudden sugar conversion is truly the political whodunnit we deserve. Which lobbyist does he owe? Whose favour is he currying? So many suspects! There’s nothing more Brexity than Big Sugar…’ In our era of who-pays-the-piper politics, it seems no one can just have a policy because it makes sense – it must have been bought and paid for by shadowy forces.

One wonders why proponents of sugar taxes are so alarmed. They claim that the sugary drinks tax has been an enormous success. It is indeed true that most manufacturers have changed the recipes of their drinks to avoid the tax, swapping much of the sugar for artificial sweeteners. Only Coca-Cola and Pepsi have held out, refusing to tamper with the recipes of their most popular drinks, but even they now only seem to promote their sugar-free drinks.

But on the other hand, in terms of seeing a change in people’s waistlines, the policy is likely to be a failure. Hardcore fans of sugary drinks will just pay the extra or find substitutes. Even then, because sugary drinks actually only make up a small fraction of overall calorie intake, any impact on obesity rates is likely to be trivial. The one clear effect of the policy has been to deprive fans of Irn-Bru, Lucozade and other drinks of the option to drink a full-sugar version. It is also very likely to cost some poorer people a bigger chunk of their precious income. The sugary-drinks tax is a regressive measure that hits everyone the same, regardless of their ability to pay. Extending such a regressive policy, that has not been shown to meet its own health goals, to other kinds of drinks seems premature, to say the least.

In fact, Johnson’s proposal should be welcomed by everyone. Let’s set out the aim of policies clearly and then review their effectiveness against those stated aims after a reasonable period. If the policy doesn’t clearly work, especially when it is as illiberal as a food tax, it should be scrapped. If the sugary-drinks tax is so brilliant, it should sail through such a review with flying colours. Perhaps campaigners are really worried that their ongoing attempts to nationalise our lifestyles will fall foul of the evidence.

Not that anyone opposed to nanny-state policies should hold their breath waiting for a bonfire of puritanical policies. The reality is that such policies get introduced, largely fail in achieving their claimed goals, and the bandwagon moves on to the next Big Idea, leaving the detritus of failed policies and the climate of illiberal interference in our lives untouched. If Johnson were really serious about a hard-headed review of these lifestyle interventions – and had the political cojones to scrap them all – that would be wonderful. But when it comes to sugar taxes, there’s much more chance he’ll do sweet FA.

Rob Lyons is science and technology director at the Academy of Ideas and a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

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anton de grandier

10th July 2019 at 11:55 am

“The reality is that such policies get introduced, largely fail in achieving their claimed goals, and the bandwagon moves on to the next Big Idea, leaving the detritus of failed policies and the climate of illiberal interference in our lives untouched.” twas ever thus.Just be thankful you dont have the idiots who infest the Scots Parly like we do here in Scotland.Woke to the max and full of reforming zeal-perfect combo for disaster.Dont forget these tits introduced the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act-thats right,criminalising songs,flags,t-shirts and anything else they deemed “offensive” at the footy.Michty me-thae vile plebs are singing their songs again Morag-fone a polis!Oh for the day whe they all just f*ck off.I’m not optimistic.

James Knight

4th July 2019 at 5:43 pm

There are many problems with sin taxes. They are normally consumer taxes and disproportionately hit those on lowest incomes. There is little evidence they work. They are based on the idea that “the poor” need to be saved from themselves. This is because there is a long known correlation with health and living standards. But instead of trying to improve living standards of the least well off, they prefer to nanny, nudge and patronise “poor” people instead. This reinforces the idea that people who are hard up are some how morally enfeebled and cannot be trusted to run the most basic aspect of their lives. And finally these taxes are indiscriminate and paid by everyone, regardless if they are obese or not.

Icarus Bop

5th July 2019 at 7:30 am

Well said.

Stephen J

4th July 2019 at 3:43 pm

I can only comment on my own little observations, as follows.

First I am 6′ 3″ 64 and 11.5 stones, I refuse to consume artificial, likely toxic (we will find out later) sweeteners, I do have the occasional unfiltered CocaCola™.

My friend who si 5′ 4″ 55 and 16 stones sometimes gives me a lift, but I can’t get into the car until he has removed around ten empty Coke Zero cans and thrown them in the back.

Simple sugar is usually burned off quite quickly, and the sugar in Coca Cola is just that.

Fat people like cake as well as coke and that is why they are fat.

Hana Jinks

5th July 2019 at 3:32 am

When an excess of simple sugar is consumed, it gets stored in the liver before being converted to fat. If one ate healthily for the rest of the day and consumed too much sugary drink, then that pwrson would still put on weight due to the excessive sugar intake.

Cake is pretty bad, but ice cream is even worse, as delish as it can be.

Icarus Bop

5th July 2019 at 7:29 am

Some people are happy fat – are we not in a era when people can be “who they are”?
Or does that mantra only apply to state sanctioned protected characteristics?
For a society that claims to be all tolerant, we certainly seem to have a lot of intolerance to certain groups

Icarus Bop

4th July 2019 at 3:08 pm

As informed adults, people should be allowed to eat and drink what they want. The government are not my Mummy (or Daddy).
It should be up to the parents to decide what is suitable for their own offspring – the government are not their Mummy (or Daddy).

If they get away with a sugar tax, they will eventually implement taxes on everything they decide you should not eat or drink, the long term result of this will be rich people wih have food and drink freedom as they have the capacity to ignore the tax, poor people will be forced to exist on a dull and blank, but “healthy” (depending on the current medical evidence at the time) state sanctioned diet.
If they are allowed to use these kind of mechanisms the government will not stop until the population of the entire UK is their own private petting zoo.

Jerry Owen

5th July 2019 at 12:23 pm

Over the years different foods have been labelled good then bad and vice versa.
Eggs , red wine, butter are three good examples.
The ‘ experts’ are not experts, they perpetuate their public sector wage packet.
My personal take is if people want cake let them have cake. I am fortunate (!) in that I don’t have a sweet tooth so although stocky/well built I am okay, but if people get fat it is their choice , I find some fat people repulsive but it is their life choice, who am I or the state to interfere ?
People say they are a drain on the NHS, but perhaps the view should be of these people that if they themselves don’t need the NHS then they are lucky !

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