A generic image of a dollar coin sitting in amongst sugar cubes, Brisbane, Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt) NO ARCHIVING

Today marks the latest in the periodic forays of nanny statists into taxation policy, with a group of public health bodies issuing a new plan called “Tipping the Scales” to tackle obesity.

While the campaign is new, there’s nothing new about what it proposes — a sugar tax, restrictions on advertising, social marketing campaigns, a “national taskforce on obesity” — although it’s unclear what “a national active travel strategy” is; the campaign was carefully dropped to a media outlet before its actual launch, presumably to guarantee some positive publicity without anyone being able to properly scrutinise it.

Obesity, they say, “poses a greater risk to the nation than smoking” and “we have a generation of children that could die younger than their parents.” 

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  1. There was no significant increase in obesity between 2011 and 2015, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The increase in obesity identified between 1995 and 2011 has ground to a halt.
  2. Obesity does not pose a greater risk than smoking. A quick google would have confirmed this. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare just one month ago, tobacco accounts for 9% of our health burden compared to 7% for overweight and obesity. But public health campaigners always want to ping their targets — whether alcohol, sugar or salt, as “the next tobacco” in order to demonise it.
  3. Despite the hysteria about an “obesity epidemic” and various other “epidemics”, Australians are living longer and — critically — living healthier, according to the AIHW.
  4. The link between sugar consumption and obesity is less clear than nanny statists claim. Wait, you’re shocked? An Australian study earlier this year showed that, in the period to 2011 — when ABS data shows Australians were becoming more obese — we actually reduced our sugar intake: “4 independent data sets confirmed shorter- and longer-term declines in the availability and intake of added sugars, including those contributed by SSBs. The findings challenge the widespread belief that energy from added sugars or sugars in solution are uniquely linked to the prevalence of obesity.”
  5. Sugar taxes don’t work. Sugar tax advocates like to point to Mexico as an example of where the introduction of a sugar tax has helped curb obesity. And, sure enough, Mexico is trotted out for “Tipping the Scales”. Problem is, soft drink sales in Mexico continued to grow strongly despite the tax. A study showed that Mexican consumers simply shifted to cheaper soft drinks rather than respond as public health modellers had predicted. A US study also found that consumers respond to sugar taxes either by only reducing consumption temporarily and then resuming previous levels, or substituting other, possibly less healthy products.

But these kinds of facts don’t matter to paternalists. They have a Manichean world view in which they, the forces of righteousness, must forever contend with the forces of evil, led by wicked corporations (Big Grog, Big Sugar, Big Pharma — you get the idea) for the souls of ordinary people, who if not protected from themselves will be manipulated and suborned by the temptations of an unhealthy lifestyle. Along the way, of course, there are plenty of employment opportunities for paternalists in academia and public health lobby groups, all of them funded by governments — that’s why they’re calling for an “obesity taskforce”, because it will furnish still more job opportunities for the public health industry.

And if we all lost 10 kgs tomorrow, they’d move onto something else. For the nanny state, the hard work of saving us from ourselves never ends.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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