Friday, 2 March 2018

Jobs for the boys on the sugar levy evaluation

The sugar levy begins at the start of next month. Ribena is the latest kamikaze soft drink to be reformulated (ie. ruined) in an attempt to avoid the 8p per 330ml tax. The usual scenes are playing out on social media...

Will the tax-incentivised reformulation or the anticipated drop in consumption have any impact on obesity? Given that sugary sales in the UK have slumped by 45 per cent since 2003 without reducing obesity one iota, it is reasonable to predict that it won't. Moreover, as I mentioned yesterday, the latest evidence review found that:

We were unable to find evidence that any sugar tax actually implemented anywhere in the world has led to improvements in health.

But you never know, eh? Quite reasonably, the government has commissioned some research to evaluate the sugar levy. Less reasonably, it has given the commission to a bunch of people who have the double conflict of interest of having (a) campaigned for the policy, and (b) produced research predicting that it would work. In any serious area of science, this would disqualify them evaluating it but that is not how things work in 'public health'.

The first names on the team sheet to evaluate minimum pricing were the MUP supporters in Sheffield and Stirling. For the sugar tax, the job has also gone to nine people at the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR). There are some very familiar faces.

The evaluation will be led by Martin White. There are signs that he may be predisposed to believing that the sugar tax will be a success...

"Studying a wide range of effects of the tax will help us be more certain about the true impacts of the tax. For example, if purchases of sugary drinks, their sugar content, tooth decay and childhood obesity all go down, and purchases of other types of drinks go up, this will increase our confidence that the tax has had a positive impact on health.

We anticipate the tax’s effects will go beyond health. For instance, a healthier population should be more economically productive. Or people drinking fewer sugary drinks might mean fewer jobs in the food industry. We will use economic models to predict the impacts of the tax on the whole UK economy.”

But we don't need to read between the lines to guess White's views. His Twitter feed makes no secret of his fondness for sugar taxes and other illiberal interventions.  

Among White's co-investigators in the evaluation is the Reverend Mike Rayner who wrote in 2012 - and I am not making this up...

In all of this I see a sacred dimension. You may not believe that I have heard God aright but I think God is calling me to work towards the introduction of soft-drink taxes in this country

In 2013, Rayner co-authored a study which claimed that a 20 per cent sugar tax would lead to a 15 per cent fall in sugary drink consumption which, in turn, would lead to a 1.3 per cent decline in obesity. These figures have been widely cited as evidence that the sugar levy will work despite the fact that there has been a much bigger fall in sugary drink consumption without a tax and yet there has been no decline in obesity.

Three other people on the evaluation team - Oliver Mytton, Adam Briggs and Peter Scarborough - were co-authors of that study. This is a glaring conflict of interest. Academics who have effectively staked their reputation on the sugar tax working are naturally going to be disinclined to say that it didn't.

It is not just that their model happened to conclude that the tax would work. They were active supporters of the sugar tax cause for years and celebrated when it was announced.

And then there is Harry Rutter, a dyed-in-the-wool nanny state zealot who sees everything in terms of 'public health' versus industry. He is, of course, very keen on sugar taxes...

The last two 'co-investigators' are Steven Cummins, Jean Adams and Richard Smith. Cummins and Adams were responsible for a risible study last year which used declining sales in Jamie Oliver's failing restaurants as evidence that the sugar levy would work. Adams also produced a study with Oliver Mytton (see above) which found that the sugar levy wasn't very popular and recommended that 'the public health community should seek to address outstanding public concerns in order to ensure successful and strong implementation'.

Of the nine people involved in the evaluation, Smith is the only one who does not have a track record of openly supporting the sugar tax, often with fanatical - and literally religious - zeal. The government might as well have asked Action on Sugar to evaluate the policy.

There are thousands of well qualified social scientists with no skin in the game who could have been hired to look at this. Instead, a group of glorified activists has been given £1.5 million of taxpayers' money to mark their own homework. 'Public health' is a shameless racket.

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