Politicians must exert self-control on sugar tax

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Doctors have been calling for a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks to tackle obesity (Source: Getty)

George Osborne promised that last week’s Spending Review would set out “far-reaching changes to what the state does and how it does it”.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told his colleagues on the Health Select Committee, who look to set to embrace recommendations that sugar be subject to a new tax in order to correct the nation’s failing health. It has become almost impossible to think of an area of public policy in which the proposed solution to a problem doesn’t involve the putting up of taxes.

Public Health England presented the committee with a range of policy options to tackle childhood obesity and the associated long-term costs to the NHS. A tax on sugary drinks featured, but was not the chief recommendation.

Alas, the raising of taxes is often irresistible to politicians and so a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks appears to be on the cards. The strength of the policy, according to the MPs’ report, “lies in the fact that it is limited to a clearly defined category”.

Unfortunately, the committee seems unable to apply their own reasoning to the other recommendations for it also wants to restrict marketing and promotions on “unhealthy food and drink” more broadly. Such a policy would certainly not be limited to a clearly defined category.

Many readers will be familiar with McVitie’s VAT tribunal in 1991, where both public and private sector money was wasted deciding on whether Jaffa Cakes were biscuits or, well, cakes. If MPs on the health committee have their way, we can expect to see a wave of similar cases to decide what is and what isn’t unhealthy. The committee backs Public Health England’s view that diets are poor because “our food choices are habitual and automatic and we exert little self-control over what and how much we eat”.

One could well argue that this report is evidence of policy makers exerting little self-control over what to tax and how much to interfere in our lives. One could also quote Calvin Coolidge, who observed that “the collection of taxes which are not absolutely required, which do not beyond reasonable doubt contribute to the public welfare, is only a species of legalised larceny”.

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