Food – and more specifically, the food industry – is mired in narratives of corporate corruptio, political pressure, social justice, and death. It has never been so political.
Our diets are killing us and making us obese, and the problem needs to be solved. Like most serious, complex problems, many commentators try to reduce it to something simple. In this case, obesity becomes about nothing but personal choice: “Currently, there are no medical cures that improve on willpower,” wrote Lionel Shriver. These opinions are a comfort blanket; they make the world a less troubling place in which to live.
In fact, the problem is as difficult and tangled as any facing “Western” societies. It’s tied to political and ideological questions of rich and poor, globalisatio, psychology and the power of corporations.
The more specific problem, according to most recently-conducted research, is sugar. There are vast quantities of the stuff in the average diet; many drinks consist of little else. Quickly digested and nutritionally empty, our vast, insatiable sugar consumption does nothing but rot our teeth and build up fat around our organs. The end result is a host of health problems: obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease to name but a few.
“[Sugar-sweetened beverage] intake has increased considerably across the globe in recent decades, tracking positively with rising rates of obesity […] large-scale obesity prevention efforts are now a priority for many countries around the world,” wrote the authors of ‘Sugar-Sweetened Beverages, Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, and Cardiovascular Disease Risk’. 
We can’t tackle the problem overnight, so we aim for smaller steps, targets we can easily pick off. The most obvious is fizzy drinks. We’ve all heard the simplistic analogies to “drinking a can of diabetes” (type 2 diabetes can, of course, have other causes beyond obesity and diet) and seen pictures of Coke cans placed next to the equivalent number of sugar cubes, and we’ve all been told the statistics. The overall impression is troubling: studies have linked sugary drink consumption to at least 8,000 cases of type 2 diabetes per year.
The more specific problem, according to most recently-conducted research, is sugar. There are vast quantities of the stuff in the average diet; many drinks consist of little else
But most of the awareness raising has done little in a world where Coca-Cola has millions to spend on marketing and public relations. So how do we stop people drinking sugary drinks?
The most commonly-proposed solution is a sugar tax. Several organisations and reports have suggested this. In July 2015, the British Medical Association released “Food for Thought,” a report on the state of healthy eating in British society. The report argues that:
“The use of taxation measures on unhealthy food and drink products has consistently been found to have the potential to improve health, with relatively high taxation levels (in the region of 20 per cent) needed to achieve positive health outcomes.
“While taxing a wide range of products is an important long-term goal, a useful first step would be to implement a duty on sugar-sweetened beverages…by increasing the price by at least 20 per cent.”
Different organisations are calling for different measures, but most of them are broadly similar: arbitrarily increase the price of sugary drinks per litre. In the words of Malcolm Clark, campaign co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign:
It wouldn’t have to be 20p; Action on Sugar would prefer to see a 20 per cent price hike.
Sounds positive. After all, other countries have done it. Mexico operates a sugar tax, and it cut sales of sugary soft drinks by six per cent in its first year. In the US, Berkeley, California introduced a sugar tax. In its first month, the tax generated $116,000, which will be invested in extra healthcare measures for people with obesity.
So in theory we know how it improves things. And in principle, it sounds difficult to disagree. Something needs to be done to cut obesity, and encouragement and education aren’t doing the trick. So make it more difficult to afford, the logic goes. Force people into different options. Or force manufacturers to reduce the sugar content of their products in order to avoid the tax and continue to offer competitive prices.
Something needs to be done to cut obesity, and encouragement and education aren’t doing the trick
But there are counter arguments, and they run along political lines. The most compelling suggests that the tax would unfairly target the poorest people in society. When unhealthy food becomes more expensive, it’s the people who can’t afford to eat healthily who suffer, and there are several reports to suggest that healthy food is more expensive.
It’s well understood that less affluent people tend to eat less healthily:
“Individuals on low incomes are less likely to consume wholemeal bread and vegetables, but are more likely to consume fat spreads and oils, non-diet soft drinks, pizza, processed meats, and table sugar.
“There is no escaping the fact that poor dietary health, like poor health in general, is more prevalent against the poor.”
That same paper goes on to argue that food taxes tend to do the opposite of what taxes are supposed to do, and are ineffective to boot:
“Taxes are supposed to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor. Food represents a declining proportion of household expenditure as incomes increase. As a result the burden of any tax on food falls disproportionately on the poor, who spend a much greater percentage of their household budgets on food. This is why food is VAT exempt. When the tax is increasingly targeted on foods which are unhealthy, things get worse: unhealthy food consumption is concentrated in low income households.”
Then there are the people who rely on sugary drinks, such as people with type 1 diabetes. In the case of a hypo, sugary drinks are one of the quickest-acting and most effective ways to raise blood glucose levels. Introducing a sugar tax is essentially a tax on hypoglycemia treatment.
It could be argued that a small increase in the amount of money people with type 1 have to fork out to treat hypos is a price worth paying, but things could easily get worse. Faced with a drop in sales following a sugar tax, soft drink companies may withdraw their products, or replace them all with low-sugar alternatives. The option to pay more for sugary drinks as hypo treatments might disappear altogether.
When unhealthy food becomes more expensive, it’s the people who can’t afford to eat healthily who suffer
Politically, it’s hard to justify implementing a sugar tax; it’s also hard to justify not implementing a sugar tax. The impasse suggest that something else has to change, something that makes a greater effort to get to the root of the problem. Healthy food has to stop being the expensive option. Processed foods need to be less easily available and restrictions placed on its marketing – as it is, putting massive amounts of sugar in food products is far too lucrative.
Perhaps we could see greater sanctions on food companies, with realistic limits placed on the levels of sugar they are allowed to put in food, rather than the wishy-washy “responsibility deal.” Implement a few more root-cause solutions, and we might not need to have the sugar tax debate at all.