Obesity crisis is growing but calls for a sugar tax leave a sour taste

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Sugar Tax

The IoD’s Simon Walker discusses why a sugar tax may not be the solution to the obesity problem 

I’m just back from Brazil, where metro carriages have seats reserved not just for pregnant, elderly and disabled passengers, but for those who are candidly obese. There’s no doubting the scale of the obesity problem, but like a lot of other issues, it is a matter of behaviour and personal choice.

Hayek was not thinking of food when he wrote that “if we wish to preserve a free society, it is essential that we recognise that the desirability of a particular object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion”.

His words can be applied to the debate about a sugar tax. Just because something is desirable – the reduction of poverty, a healthier population – we should not automatically support coercion, in the form of taxation, to achieve it.

So-called ‘sin taxes’ often end up as simple revenue raisers. Air passenger duty was camouflaged as an environmental tax but is now acknowledged – even by the Treasury – as a cash cow. Less sugar consumption would be a good thing.

But taxation hasn’t worked in Mexico where a wide-ranging unhealthy food tax reduced the average Mexican’s daily calorie intake by precisely six calories – or Denmark, where a ‘fat tax’ lasted 13 months before being binned as unworkable.

Since the government and advertisers spend millions a year on encouraging healthy eating, it seems more likely that education and information are the real ‘nudges’ towards change. Public Health England’s recommendations on sugar also constitute an exceptionally slippery slope.

Sugar bowls should be banned in restaurants, on the assumption that people are so weak-willed that simply seeing a lump of sucrose turns them into sugar fiends. This logic gives humans little credit for their own behaviour: not decision-makers but cyphers whose decisions are made by others.

Am I alarmist? Let’s not forget that the British Medical Association has described a sugar tax as a “useful first step” towards taxing a range of unhealthy products. After all, the World Health Organization has announced that sausages and bacon might cause cancer.

Ed Miliband might welcome the idea of banning the bacon butty, but we must draw a line between personal choice and public health. Let a sugar tax stand, and your crisps might be next.

Business can be a force for good

sugar tax

The reputation of business has improved since the bad old days of 2009, but it still can sometimes seem as if Britain’s employers are under constant fire. We need a few more good news stories to balance things out.

Timpson, for instance, offers free dry cleaning for unemployed jobseekers before their make-or-break interview. My predecessor at the IoD, Miles Templeman, is now running an initiative called Out for Good, which links prospective employers with prisoners nearing the end of their sentences, so they can go into productive employment when they leave jail.

In addition, thousands of people across Britain are doing work in their communities as school governors or with local charities as trustees, transferring the skills they’ve built in the business world into wider social causes – not to tick a box marked corporate social responsibility or for good PR, but because people who run businesses are invariably in it to create a better world for their families, their employees, and for their community.

Life and death matter

It is probably apocryphal, but I remember being told at the time of the financial crisis that China, throughout the Ming dynasty, never had a banking failure. If a bank collapsed, the law decreed that every employee, from the most junior office boy to the chief executive, was immediately executed. It would certainly concentrate the mind.

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About author

Simon Walker

Simon Walker

Simon Walker served as director general of the IoD from September 2011 until January 2017, having enjoyed a career spanning business, politics and public service. From 2007 to 2011 he was chief executive of the BVCA, the organisation that represents British private equity and venture capital. Walker has previously held senior roles at 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, British Airways and Reuters.

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