Sunday 15 November 2009

Soft drinks, tough laws

Sugary soft drinks should be taxed to raise money for hospitals and to tackle obesity, a leading doctor has urged.

Of course he has. Can we spell 'slippery-slope' yet?

Small charge added to fattening, sugary drinks 'could slow UK's weight gain and raise billions for NHS'

Spot the inherent contradiction here? Since nearly everyone consumes these drinks, it is important to stress that it will only be a "small charge". The neo-temperance campaigners face the same dilemma with their minimum-price-per-unit-of-alcohol ruse. On the one hand, they assure "responsible drinkers" that the price rise will be so low they won't notice it. On the other hand, they say that it will big enough to transform the nation's drinking culture.

But, as with booze, how will a "small charge" deter people from drinking fizzy drinks? How, for that matter, will a small charge raise "billions"? It could only raise billions if people keep drinking these drinks - if, in other words, the policy fails to do what it is supposed to do. And, like most neo-prohibitionist measures, it will fail to do what it is supposed to do.

[Dr] Chand said drinks that contained up to 17 teaspoons of sugar were fuelling the UK's obesity epidemic: "The amount of sugar that goes into some of these drinks is staggering and it has a double whammy, increasing obesity and rotting teeth."

Speaking of rotting teeth, I'm always intrigued by how we rarely, if ever, hear dentists calling for higher taxes and suchlike. I've never heard a dentist call for gobstoppers or pork scratchings to be banned, although I'm sure they could easily produce evidence to link them to nasty dental injuries. Perhaps they haven't developed a sufficiently effective PR machine, or maybe they just don't have the God complex that afflicts so many doctors.

Chand said he was talking about fizzy drinks such as high calorie colas and lemonades, as well as fruit squashes and energy drinks.

The clue is in the name "energy drinks", surely? It's pretty difficult to have an energy drink without calories and whilst the public health movement imagines us all to be catatonic in front of the television, there are plenty of us who play sports and do activities which require more than a diet of bread and water. 

Recently, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition seem to have (sort of) woken up to the fact that different lifestyles require different calorie intakes.

The calorie counts used as the foundation for diet plans and healthy-eating guidance for the past 18 years may be wrong, a report suggests.

The recommended daily intake of calories could be increased by up to 16%, a draft report by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition said.

This raises several points:

1. Public health frequently issues advice which turns out to be based on poor data and is wrong, sometimes even life-threateningly wrong (see the rethink on aspirin).

2. Apart from a few hypochondriacs, politicians and public health professionals, no one really pays attention to these daily limits. It is a huge vanity to believe that people will adjust their diet regardless of whether the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition increases the daily limit by 16% or not.

3. There can be no one-size-fits-all approach to diet, calories or water consumption. People are different sizes, live in different climates and do different jobs. 2,500 calories and 8 glasses of water a day is not enough for a labourer working in the sun and is too much for an administrator in an office. The only sensible advice is - and has always been - don't take in more energy than you use up. 

But I suppose that kind of advice won't raise "billions" and - heaven forfend - people would be free to ignore it.


Curmudgeon said...

Within 200 yards in the centre of the town where I work, I can buy a 500ml bottle of Coke for 39p, and an identical bottle for £1.10. I can pay £1.65 for one in a motorway service area. So what effect is a per-bottle tax likely to have on actual prices charged to the consumer anyway? The main determinant of price is not cost but what people are willing to pay.

Quiet_Man said...

I suspect with dentists they don't want to kill off the goose that lays the golden eggs, so stopping people wrecking their teeth is a definite no-no.