Fairness and Sugar Tax in the United Kingdom


Childhood Obesity News has mentioned how the public health director of Wolverhampton wants to remove sugary treats from the hospital vending machines because of the danger to diabetics and potential diabetics. The other side of that indisputable fact, voiced by proponents of individual liberty, is that everyone has their problems and their triggers, and we can’t go around “nerfing” the world just to protect people with serious illnesses who nevertheless have no self-control.

There may even be someone on staff who can prove that loss of the minuscule profit generated by the candy machines could cause a whole wing of the hospital to close, with the consequent firing of many people. Any time a sugar tax is proposed, anywhere, the same arguments are heard endlessly. Who benefits? Who gets hurt? Where does a government’s decent and appropriate concern for the citizens’ welfare end and the “nanny state” begin?

The beer lobby

One aggrieved party is the British Bar and Pub Association, or BBPA, which claims that beer taxes and general business taxes are already more than sufficient, and, furthermore, the drinking establishment industry already pays six times its fair share. Any time the subject of a sugar tax is broached, headlines pop up saying “Pubs face closure.”

The chief tenet of tax avoidance is, if anyone doubts that the protection of business should be the first priority, just mention the loss of employment and they will be silenced. BBPA-commissioned research has determined that a single brewery job generates one job each in agriculture, the supply chain, and retailing, plus 18 jobs in pubs.

In this typical example of the perceived need to look after the interests of profitable enterprises, the story follows the pattern. The headline is, “Pubs and restaurants oppose sugar tax over job loss fears.” It describes a study which showed that soft drink sales would fall by 1.6%, resulting in the elimination of 4,000 jobs in the Great Britain, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Think of the children

As with any other business, industry copywriters weave tales to show how the product serves the public good, especially if it involves kids. In March, when the British government announced that a soft-drink tax is coming, Coca-Cola hastened to deliver a scolding about how this is the wrong way to end childhood obesity.

A company bigwig said there is “no evidence in the world” that taxing sugar can bring about behavioral change in consumers. At most, people might exchange their sugary drink habit for a sugary food habit, which would be sad for Coca-Cola.

When the tax kicks in, a couple of years down the road, the British government plans to use the money for school sports. So, children will benefit in two ways, by not consuming as much soda and by receiving more exercise opportunities.

Getting back to the drinking establishments, an industry argument is seldom laid out before the public all at once. Instead, popular sentiment is built on a patchwork of cultural bits and pieces that are stitched together in the minds of the people.

Complete with underlying psychological nuances, this is the explanation of why it is good for civilization to leave soft drinks untaxed. Anyone who will be operating a motor vehicle is not supposed to drink. But people like to congregate in the pubs, and they have to drink something.

If sugar-sweetened beverages were to cost more, then people would figure, “What the heck, might as well have a beer” and there would be more road accidents, and children would die. So, no sugar tax. Meanwhile, diseases that are pretty generally recognized to result from sugar put non-hypothetical children in real danger every day.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Local Impact of the Beer and Pub Sector — The Vital Statistics,” Cask-Marque.co.uk, 08/27/14
Source: “Pubs and restaurants oppose sugar tax over job loss fears,” BigHospitality.co.uk, 08/16/16
Source: “Coca-Cola says sugar tax will not reduce childhood obesity,” Independent.co.uk, 03/17/16
Photo credit: Mike Mozart (JeepersMedia) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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