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.