Monday 30 November 2015

A tax on drinks is just the tip of Wollaston's iceberg

Today is the start of Sugar Awareness Week. If you haven't heard of it before, it's because it has just been invented by those fun-loving people at Action on Sugar (née Action on Salt). Today also sees Jamie Oliver’s delusions of grandeur reach new heights as he releases his 'crisis strategy' for obesity. Not coincidentally, there will also be the release of an anti-sugar film from one of the government's many taxpayer-funded pressure groups, Give Up Loving Pop (GULP - geddit?), and there is the launch of yet another pressure group, the Obesity Stakeholder Group, to agitate for the usual round of bans and taxes.

It is, then, a busy day for the nanny state industry, so much so that one might almost suspect a degree of collusion. This is what happens when the ‘public health’ lobby goes from flying a kite to scenting blood. But these activities are merely the hors d'oeuvres for the big events in the House of Commons: a debate on Jamie Oliver’s sugar tax petition and the release of the findings from the Health Select Committee on Childhood Obesity.

The Health Committee report is the big news, with the BBC reporting that a tax on sugary drinks has been ‘backed by MPs’. And so it has - by seven MPs to be precise. Two Conservative committee members, Andrea Jenkyns and Andrew Percy, have dissented, with the latter calling it ‘patronising nonsense’

If introduced, a 20 per cent tax on soft drinks will redistribute the best part of a billion pounds from disproportionately poor consumers to middle class bureaucrats. For those who have fallen for the bluster about sugar being the new tobacco, it is an obvious place to start, but no amount of sophistry can disguise the fact that it would be a patently regressive stealth tax. The report acknowledges concerns about disproportionately affecting low income families but brushes them aside, saying: 'We do not believe this needs to be the case because zero sugar alternatives are available which would be unaffected.' This would only be true if poor people stopped drinking sugary drinks, but that is not what happens when soft drink taxes are introduced. Sales dip little, if at all. Most people simply pay up.

Even in Mexico, which is the closest thing the anti-sugar brigade have to a success story, sales of sugary drinks are said to have declined by a mere six per cent and, as in every other country that has tried to tax itself slim, there has been no measurable effect on obesity. The committee's report doesn't mention this, nor does it mention Denmark's fat tax which was such a failure the government not only repealed it but also abolished its tax on soft drinks and abandoned its plans for a sugar tax.

Among other omissions, the report also fails to mention the awkward fact that the rise in obesity seen in Britain between 1970 and 2000 coincided with sugar consumption declining by more than a fifth. Such facts should be the bedrock of any serious discussion of obesity, but - to be blunt - Wollaston's hearings were not a serious discussion. I say this as somebody who gave evidence at them. Sitting alongside a spokesman from the food industry and a spokesman from the retail industry, it was clear that I was part of a token trio of opposition to excessive regulation. The other twelve witnesses were very much on the other side of the argument, which is to say that they were on Wollaston's side. They included two leading lights from Action on Sugar, two people from the meddling quango Public Health England, an academic who helped Jamie Oliver make his ridiculous anti-sugar documentary, a Coke-crazed campaigner from the Children's Food Fund who has been helping Jamie Oliver with his new crusade, and Mr Oliver himself. Unsurprisingly, all twelve of them are keen supporters of taxing sugar.

Although the sugar tax has been getting most of the headlines today, it is only one indecent proposal among many. If implemented in full, the committee’s recommendations would represent by far the most draconian state interference perpetrated in the name of combating obesity anywhere in the world. The committee wants to reduce sugar consumption by 50 per cent, such an impractical target as to almost be deranged. Even the folk at Public Health England acknowledge that ‘no assessment has been made of the feasibility’ of reaching it. To put it in context, per capita sugar consumption is down significantly from its 1970s peak. If it were to fall by a further 50 per cent, Britons would be eating barely half as much we did during the Second World War when sugar was tightly rationed.

Clearly, it would take an extraordinarily overbearing state to move consumption anywhere close to this target. Today's report gives the clearest indication yet of what such a state might look like. The committee wants to dictate how much sugar can be used, where it can be sold and how much it can be sold for. It wants an 'outright ban' on confectionery and other disfavoured food products being displayed at the end of supermarket aisles and check-outs. It wants non-food shops, such as WH Smith, to stop offering confectionery at the till. It wants commercials for bacon, cheese and butter to be confined to late night television. It wants the government to regulate the size of food portions in shops and restaurants. In short, it wants the world on a stick.

As if a sugary drinks tax wasn't a big enough kick in the teeth for consumers, the committee also wants to put an end to discounting, price promotions and buy one, get one free (BOGOF) offers. In a weird, pearl-clutching digression about biscuits, the report imagines a scenario in which 'a shopper might normally buy one pack of biscuits a week. When confronted with a “buy 2 for £2” deal they buy two packs instead of one (double their normal quantity). While this extra pack of biscuits might be expected to last two weeks (if still consuming one pack per week), the shopper actually buys a third packet of biscuits during the second week.' The horror! The horror!

It is a sad day for House of Commons stationery when this kind of nonsense is printed on it. As the Middle East descends into chaos and the national debt continues to spiral, there are elected politicians fretting about people eating biscuits. Not just fretting, but demanding action. Admittedly, some of the demands are cloaked in rhetoric about 'voluntary' agreements with industry, but never has the word 'voluntary' been more deserving of ironic speech marks. As the committee explicitly says, such agreements will come with the 'clear proviso that if the industry does not respond comprehensively and swiftly then regulatory action will quickly follow'.

They not only want manufacturers to halve the amount of sugar in their products, but also demand - almost as an aside - that 'the Government should also introduce a parallel programme of reformulation to reduce the overall calorie content of food, including the levels of fats'. If only it was that simple. Why do they think food companies and chefs put salt, fat and sugar in their meals in the first place? For a laugh? To get rid of surplus stock? To annoy Sarah Wollaston? In essence, the committee wants the government to put a gun to the head of food companies to force them to produce products that have no appeal to consumers.

It won't happen - not for a while, anyway. The government, like the Labour party, has never supported sin taxes on food and soft drinks. It will almost certainly thank the committee for its input and duly file the report in the waste paper basket. In response, Wollaston will do what she always does when ministers refuse to be bullied by the 'public health' lobby and accuse the government of bowing to industry. Nevertheless the report will be cited for years to come as an 'official' and 'expert' endorsement of Action on Sugar's outlandish demands. Today’s carefully planned avalanche of agitation will not be for nothing.

Cross-posted at the Spectator.

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