The sugar tax is as liberal as they come

Andy Briggs recently wrote on this blog that “any Liberal government worth its salt would repeal the sugar tax”. Certainly, the justifications that the government has given are to do with deterrence, and I agree that those are illiberal – but there is a much more compelling reason to support the principle of this policy, and one which goes right to the core of liberalism.

It is undeniable that a diet of sugary foods leads to obesity, and undeniable that obesity is one of the great killers in this country. But not only that, it’s costly – according to Public Health England, the NHS spent over £6bn in 2014/5 on obesity-related illness.

The sugar tax is often mooted as a way to deter people from eating junk through higher prices, but this justification is a weak one, mostly because price increases are unlikely to put off people who are addicted or can’t get over their cravings. Liberalism is a philosophy with many subdivisions and competing inner schools of thought, but personally, I agree with John Rawls’ view that the state should not consciously promote any particular conception of what constitutes the good life. But there is another justification for the sugar tax which does not rely on such paternalistic reasoning, and it’s one which all liberals should support.

We should view the sugar tax as a way to ensure that those who choose to eat unhealthily contribute towards the cost of treating the obesity-related illness which arises through their choices. Liberals by their nature give priority to the rights and claims of the individual above other perfectionist or utilitarian considerations. And in this sense, if individuals choose to eat unhealthy foods, it is them who should pay for the unnecessary additional burden being placed on the NHS, rather than adding to the financial burden of those who eat healthily.

A typical rejoinder to this point of view is that it undermines the principle of universal healthcare, but I don’t believe it does. As a society, we are rightly in broad agreement that a universal, free-at-the-point-of-use NHS is the best way to deal with healthcare, and those who fall ill through rotten luck or unforeseen circumstance. But increasingly, we are faced with shortfalls in funding, not least due to the aforementioned additional burdens imposed by those who choose to smoke, excessively drink, or overeat, in full knowledge of the consequences. If we are to fund the NHS properly, the question has to be asked – who should pay for these unnecessary additional costs? Should it be everyone picking up the tab for the obviously unhealthy choices of others, which countless public health campaigns and basic schooling programmes have taught, or should it be the individuals themselves, paying a simple, small extra levy on the foods which contribute to the problems? I personally choose the latter. This in no way harms the idea that any person who falls ill should receive treatment – it just thinks realistically about how it should be paid for.

In this way, the state remains neutral on whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing to smoke), or drink, or overeat – if people choose to do so, that’s their choice, and they are free to make it. But they are not free, by that choice, to impose additional costs on the taxpayer, and make other people pick up the tab for their obviously, foreseeably poor decisions. Nor, as Andy Briggs claims, does this logically lead to taxing gym memberships. Exercising, in the normal foreseeable course of things, is an entirely healthy activity. It does not cost the NHS a significant amount of money to treat exercise-related injuries. By contrast, eating sugary foods is an entirely unhealthy activity, and costs the NHS more than £6bn every year. The two are clearly not comparable.

In sum, then, although the government justifies it wrongly in the present iteration of this policy, sugar taxes generally – just like tobacco and alcohol duties – can be reasoned for from a liberal point of view. In this non-perfectionist, liberal way, I think we should support the policy.

* Harry Samuels is a Lib Dem candidate at the local elections in Oxford and a final-year Classics student at the University of Oxford.

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45 Comments

  • Andrew Melmoth 9th Apr '18 - 1:07pm

    The premise of the article is false. The highest lifetime costs to the NHS come not from smokers or the obese but from those who live a healthy lifestyle.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 9th Apr '18 - 1:45pm

    The obese, smokers, people who follow unhealthy lifestyles tend to die earlier so it could be argued that they cost the NHS/taxpayer less and therefore those who choose healthier lifestyles should be taxed more.

  • Andrew Toye 9th Apr '18 - 2:29pm

    This goes to show that life is more complicated than can be boiled down to fundamentals. We already have taxes on tobacco and alcohol – I have not heard anyone in the Lib Dems who believe that they should be abolished (well not yet!) To have a healthy population whilst enabling limitless individual choice really would be the icing on the cake (if a sugar-free alternative could be found!)

  • Harry Samuels 9th Apr '18 - 3:28pm

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with you, Martin, that the “Liberal argument here is that addiction is a form of enslavement, a restriction of liberty.” or that “addicts do not have a choice”. Perhaps it’s just a fundamental difference between the two of us, but I don’t agree with the technically named “positive” conception of liberty that you propose, because of its paternalistic corollaries. But even if you do accept that addiction leads to lack of choice, in this case, you argue that sucrose is not addictive – and so, those who choose to consume it, knowing the consequences of it, *are* making a conscious choice to impact upon their health. I think my argument still stands.

    As for your critique of the “undeniable” claims, you may well be right that it’s not directly causative, but ceteris paribus, drinking more sugary drinks simply *does* lead to higher calorific intake, which on its own leads to obesity. The health evidence really is undeniable, even if you may take issue with arguments of that form. My argument is simply that people should pay a little bit towards the end cost of potential obesity. It’s either them that pay for the additional cost, or everyone. I don’t think it’s especially liberal to force others to share the burden of the poor choices of individuals.

  • I could produce chapter and verse from John Stuart Mill to support the Sugar Tax – but common sense supports it too.

    Common sense is very often the one commodity in short supply in modern so called ‘classical liberal’ pronouncements.

  • Andrew Melmoth 9th Apr ’18 – 1:07pm……The premise of the article is false. The highest lifetime costs to the NHS come not from smokers or the obese but from those who live a healthy lifestyle……

    Please explain? Those who live healthily might use the NHS/Social care at life’s end (although those I knew usually went ‘out’ quickly)…Smokers and the obese use the NHS for a large part of their lives…

  • Andrew Melmoth 10th Apr '18 - 11:03am

    -expats
    It may seem paradoxical that the healthy cost more in healthcare overall but it is not that surprising if you think about it. The obese person who dies of heart disease in their sixties costs less than the healthy person who dies of heart disease in their eighties after a decade of dementia and other chronic diseases of old age like arthritis. This isn’t just my opinion; there have been a number of academic studies which bear this out.

  • @Harry Samuels

    Great article. Completely agree and your viewpoint entirely reflects the sentiments I expressed in the comments I wrote on Andy Briggs’ article.

  • I’m not really a fan of puritan taxes. . If you look at smoking, it wasn’t endlessly increasing tax on tobacco that reduced the number of smokers. It was health warnings, public smoke free spaces and then vaping wot did it. The tax was about as moral and effective as taxing junkies would be. Countries with much lower tax on similar products also reduced the number of smokers and often have lower obesity levels without the need to tax sugar heavily. It’s a money grab, mixed with presenting problems as stemming from some vague “other” and an easy sell to the fretting-classes. This supposedly “liberal”, IMO mostly media driven, approach is also full of contradictions about body image, fat-shaming and so on.
    I dunno, I look around and what I see is an often miserable downtrodden dispiriting crumbling social environment. Maybe people eat and drink too much because Britain can be a depressing place to live. I don’t think the answer is yet more puritan taxation.

  • The premise of the article is false

    It is also false because most drinks have been reformulated so they no longer come under the tax, so the government won’t actually be getting any extra money; and the government has been open that this was always the intention. this tax is not about raising extra money to pay for healthcare: it was always about simply depriving the consumer of choice.

    I am not obese. Far from it. I’m 5’11”, I weigh about 11 stone, and about 10% of that is fat. However, as a result of this tax, there is now only one fizzy drink I can actually drink, Coca-cola, because all the others now taste like soap.

    Also, I have to pay more for that coca-cola, but frankly that’s less of a concern for me than that I can no longer drink Sprite, 7-Up, Irn Bru, or any of the other drinks that I used to have to give some variety. I mean, yes, Coca-cola is nice, but when it’s the only thing that can be drunk it gets a bit samey!

    (And it’s not just fizzy drinks. Cordials, for example, are now also undrinkable because they all have sweetener in.)

    Why should I, who drinks fizzy drinks in moderation, exercises regularly, and am definitely not obese or unhealthy, have my choices restricted just because some people apparently cannot take their responsibilities as parents seriously and stop their children guzzling twenty cans of Irn Bru a day?

    If you want to make the case that the obese should pay for their healthcare, then fine, but this tax does not do that and it was not intended to.

  • @ Andrew Melmoth “The obese person who dies of heart disease in their sixties costs less than the healthy person who dies of heart disease in their eighties after a decade of dementia and other chronic diseases of old age like arthritis.”

    And have you any policy proposals to deal with this dreadful situation, Mr. Melmoth ? A universal cull at 65 might reverse the Brexit vote and cut the pensions bill ?

    I’m afraid no amount of academic studies can be an alternative to a bit of common humanity and a bit of common sense…… and while you’re at it – maybe you can tell me how many angels you can get dancing on the head of a pin.

    To use John Marriot’s favourite lingua franca , I’m afraid your comments are a case of reductio ad absurdum.

    PS Having my hip done on 11 May !! If I can prove it’s a legacy of delivering too many leaflets in the early 1960’s can I apply for a six month extension ?

  • Rita Giannini 10th Apr '18 - 12:59pm

    Please do not start behaving like Italian liberals, who with their endless arguing on who is more or less liberal have become extinct! A sugar tax might not be 100% classic liberal, but it is common sense. Choice restriction, because you cannot drink some over sweet concoction? Tough, that’s life!

  • Sue Sutherland 10th Apr '18 - 1:18pm

    Glen, I definitely agree with your last paragraph. Sugar may not be addictive in the strict sense but it definitely gives a lift to misery. I don’t think many people choose to be obese, they just want the comfort of that sweet taste in their mouths, which is why food manufacturers add it to so many ready meals. Some of those meals are cheaper than it costs to make a meal from scratch so those living in poverty are clobbered into poor nutrition rather than choosing it.
    I see the Sugar Tax as an attempt to regulate manufacturers rather than remove choice from the consumer so it seems like a good idea to me and removing the opportunity of treatment because someone is obese seems the height of cruelty.
    David Raw I hope your hip operation goes well and that you’re out delivering leaflets again very soon!

  • Sue
    “Sugar may not be addictive in the strict sense but it definitely gives a lift to misery.”
    Not if you have diabetes. Too much sugar makes a diabetic tired and lacking in energy.

  • Choice restriction, because you cannot drink some over sweet concoction? Tough, that’s life!

    No, it’s not ‘life’. This is a deliberate, unjustifiable choice by the nanny state to interfere where it has no business interfering.

    Why should those of us who are not obese have our choices restricted because some others cannot parent?

  • (And don’t bring up tobacco, because it’s totally different. It is not possible to smoke tobacco safely, but it is perfectly possible to drink sugary drinks in moderation and so not become obese at all: I am living proof.)

  • Andrew Melmoth 10th Apr '18 - 2:45pm

    -David Raw
    Not sure why I have aroused your ire. The argument is that we are justified in imposing a sugar tax because obese people cause additional costs to the taxpayer. But If it is just false that obese people cause additional costs, and that is what the evidence shows, then you can’t use this argument to justify a sugar tax.

    Of course there may be other, more compelling justifications for a sugar tax. Personally I think a reasonable case can be made along the lines that we are entitled to act against food manufacturers creating what is in effect a toxic food environment but I doubt such an argument can be called ‘liberal’.

    btw, I’m not attracted to your idea of culling the elderly on the grounds of cost or in hope of reversing Brexit.

  • Dav
    You are free to add sugar to your food and drink if you wish.

  • You are free to add sugar to your food and drink if you wish

    Right. And can you now explain how I remove the sweeteners so that it doesn’t taste like soap?

    Because that’s the tricky bit.

  • Dav
    Take up home cooking.
    Artificial sweeteners are worse than sugar.

  • Tony Greaves 10th Apr '18 - 3:18pm

    What is being proposed is not a sugar tax, it’s a tax on sugary drinks. If we want to tax sugar to discourage its over-use, we should tax sugar – at source – at manufacture or import. That would then feed through to all its uses.

  • Take up home cooking

    Right. And the recipe for Irn Bru is… what? You know, just so I can make it at home.

    Artificial sweeteners are worse than sugar

    They certainly taste worse. Which is why this sugary drinks tax, which had the explicit aim of getting manufacturers to reformulate their products with sweeteners instead of sugar, and so make everything taste like soap, is utterly unacceptable.

  • Andrew Melmoth 10th Apr '18 - 3:28pm

    -Dav
    Irn Bru is made from girders (and a shedload of sugar).

  • Irn Bru is made from girders

    Oh, yes, I forgot that.

    But it doesn’t help me make it at home as I don’t have room in my kitchen for an industrial girder-press.

  • Dav
    Never mind. Do you want heart disease in twenty years time?

  • Do you want heart disease in twenty years time?

    I don’t see the relevance of that, given I am not obese and am not going to become obese, because I eat properly, drink sugary drinks in moderation, and exercise.

    So why can I not get any drink (other than coca-cola) which doesn’t taste like soap? How can it be reasonable for the government to decree that I, who am at no risk of heart disease and who consumes sugary perfectly reasonably, cannot have the drinks which were perfectly fine up until a year ago, just because some irresponsible idiots let their kids guzzle twenty cans a day?

  • Which is why this sugary drinks tax, which had the explicit aim of getting manufacturers to reformulate their products with sweeteners instead of sugar

    Err, it was the manufacturers who in the first place decided their products needed a high sugar content and then decided that their drinks needed to retain their high sugar flavour and thus added artificial sweeteners to replace the sweetness lost by the reduction in added sugar.

  • A Social Liberal 10th Apr '18 - 6:10pm

    Manfarang said

    “Not if you are diabetic. Too much sugar makes a diabetic tired and lacking in energy”.

    Of course, too little sugar makes a diabetic tired, lacking in energy and might well kill them – which is why I saw a diabetic in a supermarket down on the floor and stuffing his face with jelly babies and why many diabetics carry sugary drinks – and now pay extra.

    Manfarang

    “Take u

  • A Social Liberal 10th Apr '18 - 6:17pm

    Manfarang also said

    “Take up home cooking”

    Recipe for Elderflower Champagne

    ‘Take 1000 grammes of white sugar . . . . . ‘

  • Social Liberal
    Note I said too much sugar. This is because a lack of insulin means the body cannot process a large amount of sugar. Without sufficient insulin, there will be a resulting coma and death.
    Of course a very low level of blood glucose will result in a blackout. However a diet consisting of only vegetables will give the body the required sugar levels with meals eaten at regular intervals.
    All the sugary food and drinks has resulted in millions of people developing Type 2 diabetes with the risk of stroke and heart disease. Something that threatens to bankrupt the NHS.

  • Dav
    Coca-Cola used to contain a little bit of cocaine. Maybe you should write to the company to put fresh coca leaves back into the recipe so that it has the original taste.
    The traditional shape of the bottle is said to resemble the seed-pod of the coca bush, memorializing the cocaine recipe.

  • Err, it was the manufacturers who in the first place decided their products needed a high sugar content and then decided that their drinks needed to retain their high sugar flavour and thus added artificial sweeteners to replace the sweetness lost by the reduction in added sugar.

    No, it was the customers (like me) who preferred drinks with a higher sugar content, and the manufacturers simply gave them what they wanted, as they should do.

    It is the nanny state which is now trying to reduce consumers’ choice to have drinks that don’t taste like soap.

    Coca-Cola used to contain a little bit of cocaine. Maybe you should write to the company to put fresh coca leaves back into the recipe so that it has the original taste

    I don’t see why. Coca-cola tastes fine as it is, there’s no problem with Coca-cola. The problem is that all other fizzy drinks have had artificial sweeteners added, so they now taste like soap and are undrinkable.

  • Coca Cola used cocaine when it was seen as a medicinal pick-me-up from 1885 to 1903. It’s been a fizzy sugary confectionary for the last 115 years. The point Dav is making is about the taste and since the only reason for drinking fizzy pop is taste, then wanting it not to taste like soap is a pretty big deal. My view of sugar tax remains the same. It won’t really do anything very much, thus like other puritan taxation is more about the fretting classes telling people off and signalling than actual benefits. If you look at what’s happened with chocolate it’s now cheaper to buy a four pack than a single bar, which sort of defeats the object. Also high fuel duty or so called Green Taxation doesn’t mean the environment is better or people use their cars or energy less. It jus means they pay through the nose.

  • The point Dav is making is about the taste and since the only reason for drinking fizzy pop is taste

    But taste is largely acquired – remember your first bitter, lager etc.

    What Dav is saying is that his palette prefers the pure sugar taste, what isn’t clear is whether a low sugar and no-sugar substitute variant would be acceptable. This isn’t just a rhetorical question because it is exactly the approach many vendors have taken to reducing salt in processed foods.

  • What Dav is saying is that his palette prefers the pure sugar taste, what isn’t clear is whether a low sugar and no-sugar substitute variant would be acceptable

    No, it is totally clear. Until they invent an artificial sweetener that doesn’t taste like soap (and if that was possible you’d think they’d have done it by now) then any variant that includes them is unacceptable.

    And it’s not even like I’m arguing that no drinks should have artificial sweeteners! I’m fine with the existence of diet drinks, Pepsi Max, whatever. I don’t want to impose my tastes on other people. I don’t want to force people to drink sugar if they would rather have diet drinks.

    That was the case up until about a year ago: there were sugar drinks and diet options and people could choose which they wanted. What was wrong with this situation? It’s not like I was all, ‘oh, I think diet drinks taste horrible, so I want to put a coercive tax on them to get them banned. No, I was entirely happy to live and let live.

    So how can it be okay for other people to force their tastes on me and deprive me of the option of having any clear fizzy lemonade that doesn’t taste like soap?

    Especially when I am not obese and am not in any danger of ever becoming obese because I am perfectly capable of drinking sugary drinks in moderation. The whole rationale for this coercive tax is that some parents are basically neglecting their responsibilities to properly police what their children consume and allowing them to guzzle can after can of fizzy drink.

    But why should those of us who consume responsibly be made to suffer the reduction of our choice because of the irresponsible behaviour of others? Why are we punished for their misdeeds?

    Collective punishment — ‘some people couldn’t handle it so you all have to suffer’ — is generally seen to be bad, so why is it okay in this case?

  • @Dav
    “”””It is the nanny state which is now trying to reduce consumers’ choice to have drinks that don’t taste like soap.””””

    No, it is the state recuperating costs associated with consumers’ choices. Costs largely being to the NHS, but also to DWP (various disability benefits) and HMRC (possibly working tax credits), caused by the health effects and loss of economic productivity associated with obesity. The nanny state would ban sugar. The liberal state merely makes sugar-eaters pay their fair share, just as tobacco smokers are made to do.

    Do you view taxes on tobacco and alcohol as nanny state?

  • Roland
    I rarely drink fizzy pop, but on the occasions I do I also prefer the sugar taste because the substitutes taste weird/chemically to my pallet. Whether this is acquired is a moot point as it has already been acquired. To me the question is why is it a burning issue to dictate what other people drink and why should I be expected to applaud those who propose it. I don’t eat meat. I don’t think this means there should special taxation on bacon because it’s unhealthy or that a steak should contain some meat substitutes. After all why not, if the aim is to improve health and taste is only acquired anyway?
    Unlike Dav I don’t think this is about the state, Nanny or otherwise. I actually think It’s more like the temperance movement than anything else, a sort of populism for busy bodies.

  • @Glenn
    “”””Also high fuel duty or so called Green Taxation doesn’t mean the environment is better or people use their cars or energy less. It jus means they pay through the nose.””””

    Or it raises taxes, which fund the Treasury, which is then able to invest in both research & innovation as well as roll of of technologies as part of climate change mitigation (things that stop/slow climate change, like low carbon energy production) and climate change adaption (things that remedy the effects of climate change, like flood defenses).

    General speaking, higher costs of private care use does reduce car use. All international comparisons demonstrate that.

  • @Glenn
    “”””To me the question is why is it a burning issue to dictate what other people drink and why should I be expected to applaud those who propose it.”””

    Because the consumption of highly refined carbohydrates is directly proportion to the development of a whole range of diseases. These diseases cost the NHS money. The NHS is tax funded free at the point of use. So the additional burden to the NHS is recouped via a sugar tax. It’s a very fair situation. It’s well established with tobacco. Do you propose the elimination of tobacco taxes?

    “””” I don’t eat meat. I don’t think this means there should special taxation on bacon because it’s unhealthy or that a steak should contain some meat substitutes.””””

    Highly processed meat should be taxed, most easily based on salt content. Same reason for taxing sugar and tobacco.

  • No, it is the state recuperating costs associated with consumers’ choices

    No, it isn’t, because it was explicitly said by the government when this was introduced that it didn’t expect to get any income from it because the aim was to force companies to reformulate their products rather than pay the tax.

    So no costs are being recouped and recouping costs was never the intent.

    Do you view taxes on tobacco and alcohol as nanny state?

    Taxes on tobacco and alcohol raise revenue for the Treasury to spend. This is not intended to raise money for the government to spend, it’s intended to force companies to remove choice from the consumer by depriving them of the option of buying non-diet versions of drinks (and in which aim it has mostly succeeded, with only the Coca-cola corporation holding out and actually passing the tax on to its customers rather than cravenly reformulating all its products to taste like soap).

    Also, taxes on tobacco and alcohol are not hypothecated; they are not designed to ‘recoup costs’ (indeed, as Yes, Minister famously pointed out, smokers actually both pay more into the Treasury than non-smokers, through tobacco taxes, and take less out, by dying earlier) but simply to generate revenue that the government can use for the purposes of government, like the Army, roads, High-speed rail links, northern powerhouses, etc etc.

    And they raise this revenue precisely because they are on products where demand is price-insensitive. They aren’t designed to discourage consumption: they work precisely because the government can slap a massive tax on cigarettes and smokers will keep buying them. The only thing which has driven down smoking rates is the changing way smoking is seen by society, in that it’s now seen as quite a lower-class thing to do.

    So there’s really no relevant comparison between this and taxes on alcohol and tobacco. It’s a totally different thing.

  • The nanny state would ban sugar.

    Which is exactly the intent of this tax: to ban the production of sugary drinks that don’t contain artificial sweeteners.

    That it attempts to do this by the smoke-and-mirrors of using the tax system to make the production of such drinks uneconomical rather than simply by banning them outright, as the latter would quite rightly be seen as utterly unacceptable, makes this no less true, and indeed the deceit involved could be construed as reprehensible in its own right.

    Again: this is not about raising money. The government has explicitly said it wants to raise no money from this tax; it wants to force companies to reformulate their products.

    This is not recouping costs; this is using the tax system to get around public opinion by making a ban that doesn’t sound like a ban.

  • James Pugh
    You think processed meat and sugar should be taxed separately . I don’t. As for tobacco tax I would cut the tax massively as it’s just making the addiction more expensive for the addict, plus it is fuelling the black market as prohibition style punitive measures tend to do and thus the argument that it contributes to health care costs is becoming less and less realistic. As I said in an early post. I also find the morality of taxing addicts a little questionable!

  • P.s
    I think alcohol tax is very excessive and suspect this is because hiking it every year can be passed off as a health moral crusade related. I also think it goes back to the idea that people should primarily be productive workers and that the leisure of the common citizen needs to be controlled by their social superiors, lest they become inflamed by too much freedom.

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