There wasn’t much chance that the recent proposal for a soft drinks sugar tax made by the Grattan Institute wouldn’t be drawn into the cultural class war (actually proxy war) that has come to occupy centre stage. Five years ago, it might have got through nearly unnoticed. Now it has raised an army against it, one with much greater firepower than hitherto, and in an era when people are far less willing to simply accept such social policy. At the same time, many of the arguments made against are asinine liberalism. The debate has one reaching for the dependable old quote by Winston Churchill, at the time of the 1926 miners’ strike: “I thought I had never met anyone so stupid as the coal mine union leaders, until I met the coal mine owners.”*
The arguments in favour of such a tax are simple enough. Higher carbohydrate and sugar consumption is a major cause of obesity, and obesity has been rising for many years in many societies (though in some it now appears to have plateaued). Soft drinks have a huge amount of sugar in them, whose volume is disguised by the delivery system; it goes down easier and faster than a chocolate bar. Sugar is addictive to many, an entity, like heroin, that sells the addicted consumer to the product. We are biologically oriented to seek such energy packages in the naturally given realm of scarcity; when the realm of cheap food arrives, we find that a section of the population lacks an inherent off switch that would keep their weight at a healthy set point. That number can be increased by addicting the young to the sugar rush, the rapid rise and fall of blood sugar levels that create perpetual craving cycles, independent of deeper hunger.
Report authors Hal Swerissen and Stephen Duckett argue that there is evidence that a reasonably steep tax hike — around 80 cents for a 2.5 litre bottle — would act as a curb on consumption, especially of those chug-a-lugging through a couple a day. The evidence they adduce, it has to be said, is not strong; soft drinks taxes have only been running for a few years in two big countries, Finland and France, and a few very small ones. They have to rely on modelling studies to conclude that the tax would bring about a 2% reduction in obesity, possibly.
That’s not a strong argument, but many of the proposal’s detractors aren’t interested in the detail. They decry the proposal from both a raw libertarian perspective — this is the encroachment of the “nanny state”, etc, etc — and from a more sophisticated one: that this is an attempt to deal with corporate power by regulating its consumers, leaving the corporations to reap the profits, literal and political, and socialising and individualising the costs.
The libertarian one is nonsense, of course, positing a fictive human who exercises their freedom by an infinite series of reflective choices. No one really believes that, least of all the big food and drink companies, which spend untold millions devising ad campaigns that work on the basis that people can be physiologically habituated and addicted, that such habituation can be attached to images, and consumption rates thus regularised, They then throw a few million to the tame shills at the IPA to produce propaganda about sovereign freedom, which serves as a smokescreen.
Setting up a society where corporations devote enormous energy to creating addictive behaviours, and then ask people to repeatedly resist it at an individual level, isn’t freedom, it’s the opposite. It denies everything really known about the embodied social human, in favour of an abstraction. It’s an invitation to a society where enormous amounts of psychic energy are given over to the act of resisting the compulsions that someone is spending millions trying to stir. Freedom is, by one measure, the limiting of such besiegement, so that a single choice does not have to be made over and over again.
But that criticism serves equally for the tax proposal, which constrains its idea of the social good to what can be measured generally and statistically. The tax proposal wants to set up the same psychic war within — to disincentivate buying soft drinks, thus leaving the problem consumer to fight it out within. That’s a sodding miserable idea of the social good, and Duckett and Swerrison, like most such social researchers/reformers, simply leave out any discussion of it. Since the target group is, by the nature of the mechanism, tilted towards the low-income obese, who may have few other readily attainable pleasures, the proposal has a cruel and arrogant dimension to it. A similar disdain can be heard, sadly, in Ross Gittins’ defense of the proposal in the SMH. The tone there and elsewhere — an impatience with the poor for fucking their health up, and raising the costs of public health — is another example of the schism now under way between the progressive class and the poor and excluded they were once in alliance with.
The plain fact is that there’s a rising public health crisis around obesity because there’s so much fucking food around, being pushed so relentlessly that it is swamping the defenses of an increasing number of people. Those who pride themselves on resisting it should be less willing to do so: the evidence is overwhelming that a mixture of genetic and environmental differences will set the character of your appetite and your capacity for weight gain. In food-scarce societies that doesn’t matter, because it’s only a matter of five or 10 pounds, and the excess weight on a proportion of the population is essential to social survival; as food becomes more available, addictive and pushed like a drug, all but the most genetically hardwired will succumb. You can see this in societies like the US Deep South, where everyone is either lean or seriously obese — there is very little middle ground.
The “willpower/free choice” argument is particularly useless when dealing with ethnic and genetic differences — for our high-carb, high-milk diet is one adapted to north European metabolisms, and disastrous for everyone else. Though many are unwilling to talk about it, the genetic differences are there, related to different evolutionary paths connected to climate, terrain, agriculture, etc. High-carb diets are killing Oceanic indigenous people in vast numbers, with type 2 diabetes rising to levels of 60-70% of the population in places like Tonga and Samoa, and not much better in Australia. By contrast, the Scandinavians consume sugar in vast amounts, have for many decades, and have one of the lowest rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes (save for the Finns — a rule-proving exception, since they are central Asian by origin).
The best way to fight the sugar-pushers is to create a world where people have the sort of interesting and meaningful lives and work that gives greater incentive to judicious self-care. The progressive class, and bourgeois people who congratulate themselves on their bodily and self-maintenance as an expression of their greater virtue, should admit that they simply have an overriding stake in the functional narcissism they employ to keep themselves nice.
But since that world won’t come anytime soon, there’s no reason not to use compulsion — directed at the corporations, the merchants of addiction, rather than the hooked consumer. That can be done by compelling them to adopt lower-calorie recipes (such as the Coke Life version Coca-Cola sells), use smaller vessel sizes — which would not ruin the consumer’s experience overmuch — make caffeine-free diet drinks more available (notice how they’ve disappeared — because they’re not as addictive), ban advertising, and other measures.
Reformers like Duckett and Swerisson, and those who’ll support them in Labor and the Greens, should take good note of the resistance to these proposed measures from across the spectrum. Quite simply, society is about at the limit it can take of being, at an individual level, prodded, pushed, nudged, herded, compelled and bullied by state measures for our own good. This is the sort of stuff that feeds into right-wing populism — when someone like Donald Trump talks of resisting “political correctness”, this is the sort of stuff many people hear him as talking about.
At a certain point, the psychic economy of society resists the infinite extension of this sort of control. Reformers in fields like public health can’t ignore that political condition anymore. The progressive class is undergoing an epochal challenge to its decades-long control of social policy implementation. The more blithely reformers acts as if nothing has changed, the more they make possible the condition where people will gleefully throw off all controls, the good with the bad.
But by an equal measure, libertarians bleating about the nanny state stand for a fantasy version of social life and deal themselves out of the discussion. We need better social policy debate than these simplistic ding-dongs. Something sparkling, something with the great taste of … ‘scuse me.
*actually this was Churchillian bluster. He had caused enormous hardship to workers by, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, returning the UK to the gold standard. The mine unions didn’t have much option but to fight. But it’s too good a quote to pass up.