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The shock news in yesterday’s Budget was the announcement of a new sugar tax. Many commentators have said Osborne used the announcement as a smokescreen to try and hide his obvious failure to balance the Government’s books. That suggestion has merit, although, just like Osborne’s attempts at sticking to his deficit reduction targets, if that was his intention, once again he has failed.
I wrote an article for the Yorkshire Post last October about the sugar tax and one of the protagonists for it – Prof. Graham MacGregor. It really sums-up the direction of travel. Today, I have decided to republish it in full. Nothing has changed. The proposal is as bad today as it was then.
Metaphorically speaking, watching a health zealot start up their engine, pull away from the side of the road and gradually build-up speed is as entertaining as it is disturbing.
You know that although when questioned many will stay guarded, it won’t be long before they really start telling you what they think. Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar, is one of those zealots, and during questioning by the Commons Health Committee on how to combat childhood obesity he left you in no doubt what a world with him in charge would look like.
I have some previous with Prof MacGregor. Earlier this year, I went head-to-head with him on Andrew Pierce’s LBC show. The topic: a proposed sugar tax. I went first and made the case that it was our responsibility to look after our own health and that it is the responsibility of parents to look after the health of their children. This opened the floodgates of condescension. I was talking rubbish. He had worked with poor people in deprived areas and they cannot look after themselves. It was the responsibility of people like him to look after them as he knows better.
At the start of questioning by MPs on the Health Committee, I knew what was coming. Naturally, he favours a sugar tax, and he fully expects it to start low and increase year-on-year. Don’t be surprised when Prof MacGregor calls for 700 per cent, roughly the same as cigarettes.
This was just the start, though. As he started moving up through the gears, Prof MacGregor revealed that he doesn’t just want sugary drinks taxed, he wants those with artificial sweeteners taxed too. Even though a sugar tax would be regressive, he attacked Jeremy Hunt for calling it that, and described it as a “desperate ploy” on the Health Secretary’s behalf. He openly displayed his hatred of the food industry. He wants all advertising of unhealthy food banned, and thinks the food industry kills more than tobacco manufacturers.
As he was cruising in top gear, he also came out with this gem. Prof MacGregor has worked in Tooting amongst the socially deprived, and he claimed that everyone living on the estates in Tooting is obese. Not just some, the majority, no, everyone.
How can anyone who is prone to hyperbole, has a clear agenda way beyond a genuine desire to improve public health, and who claims that the food industry kills more than the tobacco industry, be taken seriously?
Thankfully, in later evidence, Chris Snowdon, Director of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, highlighted how a sugar tax wouldn’t work in the sense that it wouldn’t have the desired effect of reducing sugar intake. Of course, any tax is going to have some effect, but as a sugar tax would be regressive, it would affect the poorest the most. Those with higher incomes could easily afford it. Those on much lower incomes could not.
An economic study has shown that when the price of rice increases, poor Chinese people eat more rice. Why? Because they can no longer afford to buy meat and they need a certain calorie intake to survive, consequently they buy more rice to ensure they eat enough calories.
If you have, say, £50 a week to spend in the supermarket, you enjoy drinking fizzy drinks and don’t want to change, you will either buy cheaper alternatives, or you will find savings elsewhere. This could easily lead to people buying more unhealthy food. You can also argue that taxing poorer people full-stop is responsible for them having to buy cheaper, less healthy food.
Prof MacGregor is not alone in his views, as we saw when Jamie Oliver was questioned by MPs. However, he is one of the most egregious examples of someone who is determined to impose his will on all of us. Just like him, I am not a fan of sugar. I watched a grandmother over 25 years ago die of diabetes. I won’t go into details, but what I saw made me determined to consume very little sugar in my diet.
The difference is that you cannot impose your will on everyone else in a free society. Banning advertising on so-called “unhealthy food” isn’t going to achieve anything. If people want to eat unhealthy food, they are going to eat it. Implying that the food industry is the biggest killer in the UK, hardly gets them working with you. Imposing a sugar tax simply means those who still want to drink fizzy drinks pay more. Raising that tax to the levels we have for tobacco would certainly have an effect, but would be politically impossible. No one is seriously going to suggest that a can of cola should cost over £3.
There is enough information around explaining what is healthy and what is not. Personally, I think labelling could and should improve. There are also many practical measures that are being taken to help consumers make their purchases. Some are going to make healthy choices, and others are not, and frankly, that is their decision to do so. Prof MacGregor has to accept that and run campaigns that make us change our minds, not campaigns where he imposes his will.