Sugar tax is an argument that carries little weight

Sugar tax is an argument that carries little weight

James Paterson — Herald Sun — 9 October 2017


Australians are struggling with energy prices and a high cost of living. But that doesn’t stop so-called public health experts from constantly proposing new taxes.

The latest example is the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC), whose Tipping the Scales report calls for taxes on sugary drinks, to increase their price by 20 per cent.

The OPC is comprised of many of the public health organisations that have spearheaded the anti-smoking campaign, so it’s hardly surprising that their plan to reduce obesity involves taxing Australians in the hope that they’ll change their behaviour. The taxes will disproportionately affect the poorest Australians who are already struggling to afford increasingly high costs of living.

That would be a concerning side effect if the policy was guaranteed to work. But international evidence suggests such a policy is unlikely to have any noticeable positive impact on obesity rates.

The OPC is following the guidance of the World Health Organisation which, in 2016, urged countries to adopt fiscal policies that to reduce childhood obesity.

According to their report, “fiscal policies that lead to at least a 20 per cent increase in the retail price of sugary drinks would result in proportional reductions in consumption of such products.”

The OPC cites an additional Australian study that estimates a 20 per cent price increase for sugary drinks could reduce consumption by 12.6 per cent.

The modelling in these studies may seem persuasive. But studies of actual, real-world examples tell quite a different story.

As many as 33 US states now have some form of “soda” tax. However, multiple studies into the impact of these taxes have found no effect on obesity.

In a 2010 study in the Journal of Public Economics, the three authors from Yale, Emory, and Bates College found that while soda taxes caused a “modest reduction in soft drink consumption” among children and adolescents, they had no effect on obesity. That was because “any reduction in soft drink consumption has been offset by the consumption of other calories.”

A 2009 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health also found “no statistically significant associations between state-level soda taxes and adolescent (body mass index).”

A 2013 study in the Evans School Review produced similar finding.

And in typically understated academic style, a 2013 systemic review of 880 studies – published in the peer-reviewed Open Access Journal, PLOS ONE – concluded that the public health case for using economic instruments to promote dietary and physical activity behaviour change may be less compelling than some proponents have claimed.”

At the very least, that should cause people to doubt the benefits of increasing taxes on selective food categories, the consumption of which public health experts want to discourage.

The OPC does cite one real-world example to justify their tax proposal: the 10 per cent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages that the Mexican government introduced in 2014.

It cites a study showing the tax decreased the sale of targeted beverages by 7.6 per cent over the two years after it was introduced.

However, as Christopher Snowden of the UK’s Institute of Economic Affairs has pointed out, figures from Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health – which strongly supports the tax – clearly show that annual sales of sugary drinks actually increased after the tax was introduced.

At this point, it looks like the OPC’s recommendation is just another paternalistic policy proposal that will harm the most vulnerable Australians and turn Australia into more of a nanny state, with only a remote chance of actually reducing obesity rates.

Rather than attempting to manipulate Australian citizens through new taxes that increase the cost of particular food or drink, governments – and the many state-funded public health bodies – should be encouraging people to take greater personal responsibility for their lives.

It is individuals who will be most impacted by poor health choices and it’s individuals who will benefit most by leading a healthy lifestyle.

Ultimately, however, the necessary lifestyle changes can’t be dictated in a paternalistic, top-down manner by governments and public health organisations, regardless of how right they think they are.

This article originally appeared in the Herald Sun.

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