Sep 20, 2016

Sugar, oh, honey honey, I am the nanny state, and you’ve got me watching you

The dietary villain du jour is now sugar -- supposedly "the new tobacco". Except the facts fit uneasily with this new form of nanny statism.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Sugar is "the new tobacco", a dangerous substance that needs to be taxed and regulated because of its harmful effects on our health. Indeed, it's the cause of a "public health crisis" requiring an urgent response. The Greens went to the election calling for a sugar tax. Such views have even spread to the Liberal Party, with backbencher Russell Broadbent calling sugar "a major trauma for this country" and suggesting the idea be considered -- explicitly linking it with tobacco. A sugar belt Nationals MP opposes a tax but has called for more scrutiny of the sugar being added to products by food manufacturers (i.e. don't regulate my constituents, regulate some other part of the industry). Debate around a soft drink tax in Australia spiked after the UK government announced a sugar tax in that country in this year's budget -- albeit one set at a level that made it easy for beverage manufacturers to slightly reduce the level of sugar in drinks in order to avoid it. But rather like alcohol -- the last candidate that nanny statists offered up as "the new tobacco" -- there are some inconvenient facts about the "public health crisis" of sugar. Chiefly, we've been cutting our consumption of it for ages. According to a 2012 study, Australian consumption of total sugar has fallen markedly in recent years and compares very favourably with consumption levels in previous decades. This is backed up by data released in 2014 by the ABS showing that consumption of sweetened beverages had fallen markedly since 1995, driven by a massive fall in consumption by children. Doesn't quite fit the narrative, does it? This mirrors the US experience: a 2011 study showed consumption of added sugars in the US had fallen in the 2000s, again driven by falling soft drink consumption among kids. Canadian data also shows a decline, albeit more modest. So why do the public health lobby and nanny statists push the "crisis" line about sugar? Partly because they reflexively employ such language -- we're always faced with crises, epidemics and the need for urgent action about alcohol, dietary fat, cholesterol, pharmaceuticals, gambling, obesity etc -- even as Australians continue to live ever longer and healthier lives, apparently we're falling like flies to a variety of self-inflicted health problem that could be stopped with a little more regulation and taxation. But it's also because the public health lobby has developed a successful tobacco-based business model: demonise a product as "the new tobacco" -- and it helps if the relevant sector has done what corporations always like to do and sponsor some dodgy research that serves their interests -- and demand greater taxation and regulation. This tactic depends on a giant fudge -- the mere use of tobacco is harmful, and its mere use in the presence of others inflicts secondary damage to them. But sugar, like alcohol, dietary fat, gambling or most other drugs, can be used at safe levels; it is only misuse of those products that harms the user or, potentially, others. But in their quest for ever greater regulation of the population, nanny statists are happy to obscure that fundamental difference. Tobacco raises some interesting public health arguments: there's a strong libertarian argument that as long as tobacco users are meeting the costs that their use inflicts on the community via the health system and not harming anyone else, then further regulation and taxation isn't necessary, but nanny statists counter that smokers are the innocent victims of addiction and exploitation by evil tobacco companies that deceive them, so the rest of us are justified in imposing our views on smokers (rather like churches used to justify torture of heretics to save their souls). With other products we don't, with any sort of logic, even get that far: there's no sound case not to let individuals decide the line between harmless and harmful use according to their own personal needs and wants, which they know better than the rest of us do. And judging by the increasing health of Australians, the great majority of people manage that decision quite well. But that doesn't fit with the tobacco-based business model of the public health lobby, which will always invent new epidemics, crises and traumas to justify regulating and taxing the rest of us.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

14 thoughts on “Sugar, oh, honey honey, I am the nanny state, and you’ve got me watching you

  1. David Gillespie

    Bernard its probably a good idea to look behind the headlines on sugar consumption stats. The Australian study you link to (via Diabetes SA) was prepared by Green Pool Commodities and paid for by the Australian Sugar Industry. It accepts that there is no data on Australian sugar consumption and so makes some up based on extraordinarily spurious extrapolation from the series abandoned as inaccurate by the ABS in 1998.

    The ABS, US and Canadian soft drink data you link to is based on self report. The ABS notes that it is underreported by at least 17% in men and 21% in women for all foods in the latest version. A 2007 study of reporting of discretionary food intake found no statistical association between biomakers and what was reported by people categorised as obese (in other words the fatter we are the less likely we are to accurately report consuming sugar).

    The difference between ‘misuse’ of sugar and the other addictive substances you mention is that they are not embedded in every food on the supermarket shelves. Very few individuals are making a conscious choice about their sugar consumption. And very few understand that the BBQ sauce on their bacon sandwich is 3 teaspoons of sugar or that the Heart Foundation approved children’s snack is 72% sugar. Until they do (and choose to do it anyway) the nanny state argument has no legs.

    1. Saugoof

      Very good points.
      I haven’t actually read the studies linked in the article, but I was wondering if this included sugar in everyday products. I know we drink less high-sugar soft drinks than a decade or two ago, but I get the impression (which may be wrong) that sugar contents in every-day food has increased in the meantime.

      I used to share a house with a diabetic. Before that I was completely clueless about sugars in food and thought it would only be the obvious candidates that are packed with sugar. Soft drinks, breakfast cereal, donuts, chocolate, etc.. But my housemate couldn’t eat McDonalds hamburgers because there was so much sugar in the buns. Or off-the-shelf spaghetti sauce which was just loaded with sugar, or the many low-fat products which are instead loaded with sugar to make them palatable.
      Don’t get me wrong, I love sugar and never want to live without it. But it’s precisely the fact that I and most other people don’t read the fine-print which means that we are unaware of just how much sugar is packed into some foods that makes it important that the government actually does look into regulation. This is not nanny state-ism, this is the reason we have government.

    2. mikeb

      You beat me to it David. Sugar is insidious. It is in just about anything – even items you’d never expect. Even if you wanted to not consume any it’s difficult to avoid. Go into the supermarket & have a look at the ingredients of any prepared foods and I’ll bet most are loaded with sugar. You could wean people off it by just reducing the added sugar incrementally. It will never happen however.

  2. sharman

    it is probably a good idea to walk around the streets with your eyes open. You do not need a narrative when everywhere you go, all you can see is people who are morbidly obese.

    1. Srs21

      Maybe those morbidly obese people should control the amount of food they shove in their mouths. What’s the saying?…… everything in moderation,that’s it!! You think aspartame is better than natural sugar? What a joke!

  3. Andrew Watkins

    You ignore a big part of what is going on here – advertising and promotion

    The most egregious example over years has of course been tobacco, but the fast – food lot are well up there.

    What this means is that the concept of informed choice, undisturbed by the nanny state, is a fond fantasy. The hapless consumer or parent is arrayed against teams of highly trained PR types and PhD psychologists who have worked out which buttons to push to achieve the desired result ( buy more stuff and eat it ).

    Most kids can recognise the logo of a large scottish restaurant chain very early in life, this because of s deliberate and well-organised push to develop “pester -power” marketing.

    The same scottish restaurant occupies a prime spot in the food court of the hospital in Melbourne in which the hard core of kids with maturity -onset diabetes due to obesity are managed. All this as part of an attempt to buy respectability and corporate image.

    Those in public health have a duty to do whatever they can to counter this – we do face an increase in lifestyle related disease and the fact that health outcomes are at the moment good does not mean that they will remain so – those currently in middle and old age grew up in an era in which it was unusual to be as overweight and sedentary as is today the norm. One rather wonders what the 8yo with maturity onset diabetes because he weighs 80kg will look like in 20-30 years.

    We can stent coronary arteries and do all sorts of clever stuff, but good medicine requires that we focus on stopping it happening in the first place. This means that those promoting disease must be countered in their own terms, by restricting their ability to promote disease.

  4. zut alors

    ‘…even as Australians continue to live ever longer and healthier lives,..’

    Currently the older Australians are the generations raised in the first part of the 20th century including a large percentage of baby boomers. The majority of these were not chubby children nor were they being fed highly processed foods in their formative years. Perhaps these facts are relevant to their longevity boosting today’s statistics of ‘living longer’.

    But, with so many obese Australians aged under 30, it would be interesting to compare overall longevity in another 40 – 50 years. A couple generations ago there was usually one tubby child per classroom, nowadays the competition for class heavyweight is rife.

  5. Woopwoop

    Shame on you Brendan, your ultra free-market blinkers have blinded you to being able to evaluate what constitutes valid evidence, as others have pointed out.
    Also, you say: “there’s a strong libertarian argument that as long as tobacco users are meeting the costs that their use inflicts on the community via the health system and not harming anyone else”.
    Have you any idea of the true cost of medical treatment for serious lung disease? Tens of thousands of dollars, which few could or would pay.

  6. AR

    BK, our rabid equivalent of the vaxxer when it comes to pubic health. The only worthwhile reason to have a sugar industry is to make ethanol.
    As Prof John Yudkin pointed out 40yrs ago, sugar is pure, white & deadly.
    Shame on you for, again letting your ideological mania distort your reportage.
    No sweeties for you.

  7. Anniejean

    Is the tax on ethanol more or less than the tax on Jellybeans . Either way the forest suffers and we are all worse off

  8. Sense Seeker

    If you don’t know much about the topic and can’t be bothered to check your sources, or don’t have the expertise to judge their trustworthiness, it’s a good idea not to write about that topic. There is ample proof that consumption of sugar leads to weight gain and diabetes (even apart from the weight), and the majority of Australians are overweight or obese. They don’t consciously make a choice to be fat, and they don’t really choose to consume so much sugar. The free choice we all think we have is limited by knowledge of what our food contains, marketing, and simply what is available. And so long as we’re all contributing to Medicare, your conditions for a free market aren’t fulfilled anyway. A little nudge to do the right thing by making unhealthy foods more expensive and less accessible and healthy foods easy and cheap is perfectly defensible. If that is the nanny state, sign me on. I’m far more concerned about the big brother state.

  9. Norm

    Bernard, you are supposed to be the Politics Editor. Stick to what you are supposed to know, and stop running off with your obsessional compulsions, like some sort of Pauline Hanson.

  10. Graham R

    An irresponsible article that basically presents the “Australian Paradox” line of argument. The fact is that there is so much sugar embedded within processed foods that it is almost impossible to measure. Australians’ sugar consumption is climbing, not declining.
    And how can you claim Australians’ health is improving when diabetes numbers are through the roof and climbing?
    There is a direct link between excessive sugar consumption and diabetes, and there are armies of PR people frantically trying to downplay that link all the time.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details