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Should there be a sugar tax?

In an attempt to combat the growing obesity epidemic, Mexico recently approved a sales tax on sugary drinks.
Could taxing sugar and other health damaging foods be an effective way to reduce our rapidly expanding waistlines? And if so, should other countries follow suit?
Is it reasonable to treat sugar and junk foods like other harmfull and addictive drugs such as tabacco and alcohol? Do they deserve such bad press or are we simply passing on the blame for our own inability to take responsibility for our health?
Would such a tax be effective anyway? Or would it simply be an infringement to our freedom of choice and another way for governments to make money?

  • Jan 23 2014: So far, most people seem to agree that we have a problem with sugar consumption, but for one reason or another feel that taxing sugar is either A) too impractical/difficult to enforce B) a violation to personal freedom or C)part of a much wider problem that cannot be solved through tax policy.

    Do you agree?

    I'd also love to hear from anybody who

    A) thinks that taxing sugar could be a good idea, and if so, how would it work?
    B) thinks that sugar and HFCS are not as harmful to health as some research would suggest. Do you think sugar is being demonised unfairly? look at research into saturated fat in the 90's and 00's and how experts are backtracking now.
    C)Has a suggestion of a better way to deal with the current obesity epidemic.
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      Jan 23 2014: I am sure it will already have been said, but surely the best way to tackle such an issue would be through a more thorough education. Those that understand all the facts are surely in the best position to decide what is good for them (or what is not, but okay to eat anyway for whatever reason), but then again I've never been a fan of anything that points towards a 'nanny state'. So I guess I am not a fan of the taxing idea.

      Its a tough call though, there are many factors revolving around how one even gets obese in the first place, many of which will be no doubt be unexplored by most. Factor such a social pressure, culture and so on.....either way I dont think I am qualified so say with any certainty what should be done. Its a good thing to discuss however Bethan, I dont think enough people take the obesity epidemic very seriously!!
      • Jan 24 2014: Hi Chris,

        Thanks for joining the conversation. I agree that it's a very tough call.

        I don't claim to know any of the answers and I'm sure there are many more people out there who are far better equiped than myself to tackle the issue. The only thing that I can say with any certainty is that whatever we are doing at the moment is not working. I guess we can only hope that by encouraging more people to discuss the issue we might get closer to a way of dealing with what is fast becoming one of the biggest health issues around the world.
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      Jan 23 2014: If we taxed everything that was deemed to be bad for us, politicians would have to tax themselves :)

      The media is telling us we should look like that photoshopped person on the front page, while the food industry is aggressively marketing the wherewithal to become the polar opposite. Result? Eating disorders, depression, obesity...

      These two industries, aided and abetted by politicians, have a lot to answer for.
      • Jan 24 2014: Hi Allan,

        Thanks for joining the conversation. Personally I think a politician tax sounds like a great idea : )

        Good point about media and food industry influences. But do you think that this is something that is likely, or even possible to change? I think in the last few years the media has shown some progress in promoting a healthier body image, especially with regards to using sports people as opposed to stick thin models in magazines/advertising etc. However, since most people will never look like athletes, is this still glorifying a body type that is unachievable for most?

        The media would probably argue that they only convey what people want to see, and people don't want to see/read about joe average. So I guess what I'm asking is, do you think there is a way the media can promote a healthier outlook without losing people's interest?
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          Jan 24 2014: Hi Bethan,

          This feeds into the wider issue of what exactly is a 'free society' and where, if left alone, it will end up. Is an unregulated free society likely to descend into immorality, or ascend into a utopian, civilised moral high ground if left to it's own devices?

          If a free society is to self-regulate, who or what would be responsible for such morality? Personally I don't see such a moral code as being innate. It may well be in individuals, but not necessarily collectively without, lamentably, a pervading influence of a belief system - or even a benign dictatorship.

          Isn't this also true when we think of an unregulated (or self-regulated), free media? Does complete freedom lead ultimately towards an erosion of morality?

          It could therefore be true that a free media, in conveying what people want to see, isn't necessarily responding to innate morality, but rather an unwritten code set by commercialism and the free-market economy. I leave it open to debate as to whether commercialism and the free-market is in some way synonymous with morality...

          I think you're right about glorifying body types. The unachievable is also aspirational, and it is those aspirations (dressed up as reality) that sell products, in a way that the ordinary and the achievable would not.

          You ask is there a way the media can promote a healthier outlook without losing people's interest? My answer is if we want unfettered freedom, then we also have to accept the diminution of many things that makes civilisation civilised.

          Freedom, given collective human nature, comes with a price tag.
  • Jan 22 2014: The sugar tax does not solve any problem and the revenue generated by it is neglectable. Problems related with the abuse of substances, including: alcohol, tobacco, drugs and sugar, simply cannot be solved by a tax policy, it´s dumb to think that. A tax policy like the one implemented by the Mexican government has little impact on the consumers' habits in the short term and no impact on the long term, people simply gets used to pay more. The Mexican sugar tax law is the prefect example, on day one people still preferred coke over milk, no one stopped eating junk food, so in terms of health care it was a complete, absolute and shameful failure, since the very first day!!!

    Some may say the problem lies on the Mexican government imposing a too low tax rate, however when you impose a high tax on a "rewarding" substance you automatically open the door for the black market and the mafia behind it.

    So, in terms of health care, a solid education and a rigorous discipline imposed from home at a very young age solves more problems than any tax law.
    • Jan 23 2014: A great point. If taxing a harmful substance has little or no impact on consumer habits then it does simply become another way for the government to levy more money.

      Would it make a difference if the money got pumped directly into the health care system? After all, obesity, diabetes and related conditions now cost the health care system more than alcohol or tobacco. Is it fair that our health care is under threat or is personal freedom more important than access to decent medical care?

      Can education tackle the problem? or will people always seek out pleasure regardless of the consequences as one of the previous commenters suggested?
      • Jan 23 2014: Tax revenues coming from sugar are marginal compared with other taxes, so "pumping" them to the health care system will also have very little impact. Like you said, the sugar tax is just another way for the government to levy money, however a very dumb way, since it generates very little income.

        One the other hand, education, and I mean education at home combined with a strict discipline imposed at home at a very young age can solve a whole lot more (health) problems than all the tax laws together. Obesity is after all, a problem of lack of proper education plus lack of discipline, self imposed discipline to be more precise, and the only way to learn self imposed discipline is through your parents. A disciplined society requires less health care related expenses, which translates in better invested taxes and thus higher quality in the health care system.
  • Jan 22 2014: How would such a tax work exactly?

    Simply taxing straight sugar won't work, as then it'll just get replaced with corn syrup, or if you're feeling sneaky, some more complex carbohydrate and an enzyme that makes it decompose into sugar over time (like a ripening banana) or whatnot.

    Fruits and vegetables contain an amount of sugar, native to the plant, no additives in sight. Do those need to be taxed as well? With genetically engineered plants getting more and more common, how long will it take for someone to figure out how to make the fruit grow with more sugar in it to begin with, thereby evading the tax without lowering sugar content?

    Honestly, it sounds like a practical impossibility, even if you do decide to hurt people's freedom in this manner.
    Tobbaco and alcohol are both partially restricted because A)they hurt people other then the user (second hand smoking and drunk driving mostly), and B)enforcement is much easier, as they're less ubiquitous then sugar.
    • Jan 23 2014: Thanks for joining the conversation. You make some great points.

      Enforcing a tax on sugar would never be straightforward. I would also hasten to add that I'm not implying that all sugar is inherently bad. Some sugars (In the form of complex carbohydrates such as those in fruits and vegetables) are in fact essential for good health. The last thing we would want is people dodging fruit and veg and taking a whole load of man made vitamin pills instead!

      The issue really needs to revolve around added sugars, especially those with proven health implications such as HFCS. Although I'm not sure where things like genetically modified fruit or added enzymes would fit into the equation. Possibly you're right and it's a practical impossibility, companies will always find ways to avoid taxes and restrictions on what they can sell. Is there a better alternative? Or are we fighting a losing battle?
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    Jan 22 2014: From a teenagers perspective , No. Everyone , for the most part, has choice of what goes in their bodies. We should be able to willingly take responsibility for ourselves. If we want to drink sugary beverages , ( Untaxed) then we should be able to. If you don't want to, then don't buy any or drink them. We should not tax sugar because of obesity. Every one has a choice.
    • Jan 23 2014: Thanks for taking the time to respond, it's always interesting to hear the point of view from different age groups and perspectives.

      I agree that freedom of choice is important. But my question is that if sugar could be responsible for the growing obesity epidemic, can we afford to just ignore the problem?

      Freedom of choice is a great ideal. But when our health service is under severe pressure, with obesity and related problems now costing us more than alcohol and tobacco put together, is it fair to let everybody pay the cost for those who choose to over consume?
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    Jan 22 2014: No there are always unintended consequences.

    In the US they have put tariffs on foreign sugar for many years. The unintended consequence has been that it is cheaper for the sugar consuming industries to use corn syrup instead. This has led to a depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer under the farm belt and alleged side effects of the corn syrup.
    • Jan 22 2014: I can see your point. There are always unforeseen consequences for our actions.

      Today's over reliance on sugar containing foods and refined carbohydrates is itself largely due to the widespread assumption in the 1980's and 90's that fat was the main culprit in unhealthy Western diets. This led to a wave of 'healthy' and 'diet' foods where the fat content would be replaced with sugar instead.

      But should we let our mistakes in the past prevent us from trying to improve the future. Yes there will always be consequences, but what is the alternative? do nothing?
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        Jan 22 2014: "but what is the alternative? do nothing?"


        You would rather persuade someone into better behavior through force?

        Make no mistake, making something a law is using force. In my area if you don't wear your seat belt it will cost $200 (which is a real good idea?) don't pay the ticket and they will use force to "rectify" the situation.

        The state legislators pass about 900 new laws per year, because they "know best" what people should be doing. BTW they must be real smart fellers to know what is best for 39 million people, don't you think?

        If I had my druthers I would like to do away with the central bank. Educating people about the problem is the only answer, although it is more likely the entire country will fail before that happens.
        • Jan 23 2014: You say that educating people is the only answer.

          Yet many intelligent, educated people who are fully aware of the risks associated with diabetes/obesity are overweight and continue to eat foods that they know will damage their health and could even contribute to their premature death. Should we just ignore the problem and let them get on with it? What about the cost to our crumbling health service? the billions that could be spent on other problems?

          Often, knowing that something is bad for you isn't enough. Especially when we are constantly surrounded by the things that we know are bad.

          Could a sugar tax help pump some money back into the health service that desperately needs it?

          Or if not, does the education you mentioned simply need to take a different form. Maybe rather than simply telling people something is bad we need to educate about health in a more practical, hands on way?

          Or maybe we should privatise health care? although that didn't seem to go to well for other industries. Look at the state of our railways, not exactly a glowing example of privatisation.

          I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.
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        Jan 23 2014: I don't think you are hearing me.

        Whatever the person chooses it is THEIR CHOICE.
        • Jan 23 2014: I hear you.

          I'm just playing devils advocate here, I didn't mean to offend. I'm not meaning to express any opinion on the matter here. Simply asking questions and challenging views.

          Sorry if you got the wrong end of the stick. My apologies
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        Jan 23 2014: Don't flatter yourself. The point is simple.
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          Jan 23 2014: Is being so brash in a discussion necessary, it doesnt seem to me that Bethan is doing much wrong, except of course not having the same opinion as you....
          It all seems quite contradictory. You spout about the use of 'force' in changing behaviour being immoral, yet are so willing to answer bethan's opinion with such contempt.

          I think you need to take a step back and start practicing what you preach...
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        Jan 23 2014: He is assuming that he is offending me. This forum is moderated and is very mild, you consider my post brash, go figure.

        Both of you are avoiding debating my point.
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          Jan 24 2014: I am assuming that I am offending you? no no no you've got the wrong end of the stick Pat, I actually understand and agree with what you say, to an extent. However If I was Bethan, then yes, I would be far more willing to offend you.....and it would not be difficult to adequately do so with the way you compose yourself! I am simply an observer who thought that maybe if you saw things the way I have you may change your attitude... clearly I was wrong there.

          And again you are wrong, I have no need to answer your point, I was not participating in your little debate, I am honest enough to say that despite my qualification in bio chem, I am not qualified enough to say with certainty what the right course of action would be. But hey, some of us are more humble than others eh! Speaking of not answering seem to have ignored the clear contradiction I highlighted in your previous post... care to act how you so quickly suggest others to do? I wont hold my breath!

          Once again Pat, you show little more than average intellectualism, padded out with a large amount ignorance... I think its about time you finished blemishing this debate with your absurd comments.
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        Jan 24 2014: No I'm very simple and definitely not an intellectual. I'm quite proud that I'm able to get around on my hind legs.

        I'm simply stating my disagreement with the idea that someone knows what is best for someone else. Since an obese individual is not hurting anyone else why should the obese individual be forced to do anything?

        That is my only point anything else is a digression.
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          Jan 24 2014: "Since an obese individual is not hurting anyone else why should the obese individual be forced to do anything"

          Sorry Pat, but I am a little confused... I do not recall anyone here calling for obese people to have anything forced upon them. A tax on sugar doesnt single anybody out (not that I am for that!) A increase in the quality of education certainly doesnt force anything upon anyone....You talk as if we are all calling for anyone overweight to be rounded up and shipped to some weight loss camp, while you, the knight in shining armour have arrived to set us all straight. I think its about time you returned to reality...

          Lets get this right, these kinds of conversations are simply an exchange of ideas and thoughts... your malicious tactic of debating points counter the very nature of this, and while this is half assumed of me, I believe I speak for most people here when I say such an attitude is not welcome.

          This is a digression Pat, that's what happens in debates when you spout rubbish, people pick up on it and counter, you can stop trying to avoid it like a petulant child if you like and own up to your misgivings.

          Speaking of avoiding, I answered your point when you said "Both of you are avoiding debating my point". So I'll ask for a second time, care to answer mine now? Or do you only talk about subject matter that doesnt infringe on your ego...
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        Jan 24 2014: The reason for the original point was to combat obesity.

        This law would force people to pay more for sugary drinks. If a business man decides not to pay the additional tax for the drinks he will be FORCED to or out of business.

        You are arguing for the group doing what is best, I'm arguing for individual freedom.
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          Jan 24 2014: Ooooo, I see now Pat! That's very thoughtful of you, a point well made!! Its touching that you care so much for the plight of the common businessman...

          Oh no wait a minute....wasnt it OBESE people were to being forced to do things earlier... let me copy and paste you comment:

          "Since an obese individual is not hurting anyone else why should the obese individual be forced to do anything?"

          So are we assuming all business folk are obese? that seems like quite a stereotype, or could it be that your arguments are so flippant and sporadic that even you do not understand what you are going on about...

          Once again you are ignoring my point, if you are such a liberal, thoughtful gentleman, why on earth would you speak to people like Bethan like they're dirt off your shoe for simply having an alternate view. Like I said previously, I do not believe a tax on sugary produce would solve the issue, and I have a clear picture in my head why that is... I do not need your half-baked thoughts, anyone can see the issues you bring up that such a tax would present. However there are always two-sides to a story, maybe there are benefits unforeseen that could arise if such a change was made. Who are you or I to have such conviction that one way or another is certainly right.

          I must say I am not in the habit of lowering myself to such standards, but you sir, are a buffoon... only that is clear from your comments. I suggest this discussion ends here, as I havnt the interest in entertaining your rubbish any longer.

          Good day to Pat, I only hope for you a rock from the sky one day knocks some sense into that skull of yours
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        Jan 24 2014: You see the value of something is determined by free exchange. Each individual has his idea of what is valuable this is subjective where each individual determines that for his self interest it is best to make the exchange it becomes objective.

        When force is used to greater or lesser extent the exchange is no longer voluntary and no longer objective or subjective. At this point the market is abandoned and unintended consequences manifest themselves.

        I strenuously object to the collective deciding what is best for the individual.

        If you have a problem with that too bad, get over yourself and look at what I'm saying.
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    • Jan 22 2014: As a species we certainly seek out pleasure. But is it naive to think that in this day and age we have freedom of choice and that our habit's are our own?

      Food manufacturer's have long been aware of what they call 'the sweet spot' - the point at which a certain food has the most desirable level of sugar, salt or fat and the point at which it becomes most addictive. Many of the foods we regularly eat have been refined, tweaked and had foreign substances added in the pursuit of reaching the sweet spot. As a result, we now consume vastly more sugar than would naturally occur in natural foods.

      So what I'm asking is, if food manufacturer's have been (at least partly) responsible for our sugar addiction, and the government has been complicit in allowing it to happen, should they not take responsibility for changing the habits they have helped to form?
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        • Jan 23 2014: Interesting point.

          Is alcohol not tackled with as much vigour? I would be tempted to argue that most people are at least aware of how damaging substances such as alcohol and tobacco can be, but choose to indulge regardless of the health implications.

          Perhaps the reason why people argue so passionately over sugar is because the jury is still out on how damaging it really is? Especially when you begin to consider alternatives such as artificial sweeteners which many would argue are more damaging than the sugar itself.

          But you're right, I'm sure in 100 years time people will be having a similar conversation over some other substance.
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    Jan 22 2014: It has to be freedom of choice - but an educated one. I wouldn't want yet more nanny-state draconian measures from government telling me what I can and can't do.

    Many people now avoid salt for instance, inspired by the latest wisdom about it's possible harmful effects on health.

    Personally, I avoid refined carbohydrates in favour of complex ones, but still consume salt. That's my choice because I exercise a lot and need to replace salts lost by sweating. Also complex carbohydrates are better for sustained exercise like cycling and trekking.

    The point is, sugar (and salt) are much less harmful to health if people just moved around a lot more.
    • Jan 22 2014: I absolutely agree that substances such as sugar and salt would be a lot less damaging to health if people would simply move around a lot more.

      However, the sad fact is that a huge number of people do not regularly take any exercise at all, and even moderate exercise such as walking is a huge expectation to have.

      As somebody who is healthy and regularly exercises it can be difficult to understand why it is so difficult for people to move more. In his book 'Sugar, the bitter truth' Dr Robert Lustig suggests that insulin resistance caused by the over consumption of sugar, especially in the form of HFCS, sets off a whole chain of hormonal disruption. He makes the case that it's this disruption to our normal bodily processes that can cause metabolic disorder and that this that makes it so hard for some people to be active or maintain a healthy weight.

      Could sugar be actually stopping some people from being more active? Or should we just be doing more to encourage regular exercise?
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        Jan 22 2014: There may be other factors at work, such as labour-saving devices and computer technology, dependence on cars etc, meaning people stay still much, much more than our evolved metabolism is used to. Sitting down all day and every day is bound to alter how we metabolise food generally and where on the body fat is distributed.

        This means that it becomes a conscious effort, outside of normal routine, to get up from a sitting position in order to artificially contrive exercise to compensate for lack of physical effort at work and at home.

        Yes, I think HFCS specifically could be actively preventing people from being more active - at the hormonal level, but also because it is seldom combined with other nutritionally beneficial foods. HFCS in isolation, is empty calories, and some even regard it as a poison:

        Others may argue that HFCS, being mostly GMO derived, makes it metabolically damaging in more ways than previously thought (though the jury is still out on that).

        There's also the thought that rapid weight gain through the consumption of HFCS is a vicious cycle culminating in the body becoming too heavy and lacking in muscle metabilosm to effectively exercise without having to redouble the effort.

        I'm not sure how we could do more to encourage regular exercise. It's another one of those 'freedom of choice' vs 'nanny state' arguments.

        My own view is that the obesity/diabetes epidemic, if one traces it far enough back, is a problem of economics, where vested interests and market forces take precedence over the basic health and well-being of people. Though someone heavily invested in sugar futures would probably vigorously deny that.