Oh no! Australia not leading the world in Nanny Statism

An opinion article in the Fairfax press criticises the failure to replicate the tactics used to cut tobacco consumption on sugary and fatty foods and drinks.

First up the public health activists want new taxes on sugary drinks, and they’re using shock tactics to get it:

At the recent media launch, a representative of the Australian health groups behind the ad brought a wheelbarrow full of sugar. That’s how much sugar a person consumes in a year if they drink a standard serve of sugary soft drink a day.

Apparently the issue now facing Australia’s public health measures isn’t about efficacy, but that we are merely falling behind in showing “leadership”. According to the author:

In areas like tobacco and road safety, Australians have led the free-world in accepting state paternalism, tough regulations and higher taxes and fines. They were for our own good.

In the same vein, Australia should be a leader, not a laggard, in tackling obesity.

But intervening should surely require evidence it will be effective.

The folly of such proposals were well covered by Julie Novak in her 2009 Punch article and her later research paper Soaking the poor, where she has cited:

A study by Fletcher, Frisvold and Tefft analysed the impact of changes in US state soft drink taxation rates from 1990 to 2006 on changes in the body mass index. It found that a one percentage point increase in tax rates reduced average adult BMI by a miniscule 0.003 points.

But the much broader issue is that such taxes are ineffective unless they tax people out of their choices.

Australia already has a fat tax-of-sorts. It is called the GST. Fresh food is exempt from the GST. Processed food is not. Yet a 10 per cent tax isn’t likely to do anything to change behavior. Only a tax that is so high people lose choice will do that. This was certainly the lesson in Denmark. And if we do so it acts as a tax on the poor while the rich continue to be able to afford all the sugar they can consume.

Imposing taxes also assumes the problem isn’t already being solved. It is. As Chris Snowdon recently argued there’s no issue with sugar in soft drinks. The market has already responded to concerns from consumers about sugar. That’s why we have diet drinks. In fact we don’t just have diet drinks, we have a whole range of zero sugar drinks – Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Coke Zero, Sprite Zero, etc.

But the much broader issue identified by the author is that proposals to tackle obesity have been too “soft”. He’s right. Currently obese people are treated as victims at the prey of food manufacturers and sugar pushers. Creating a culture of victimhood makes people soft and feel they aren’t responsible. It is time for some tough love. It is time to tell people they’re responsible for their own lives.

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