Sugar taxes and porridge gospels

These days if you enter a McDonald’s restaurant in Australia or New Zealand and order a medium frozen Coke, they ask you if you wouldn’t rather have a large one, since they both cost $1 anyway. And why would you have the smaller one, when after all you can stop drinking it whenever you want? This basement price for the beverage – part of a promotion that began two years ago – could well be below cost, and seems designed to get you into the restaurant in the hope you will be persuaded to consume something else as well.

A large Frozen Coke contains the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar, give or take. The daily recommended intake for an adult is anywhere between seven and 10, depending on whom you ask. If the tax on soft drinks with a high sugar content just approved in the UK were extended to these parts, McDonald’s large Frozen Coke would likely attract the highest of the two levels of taxation, affecting the chain’s bottom line. But that’s not to say that the extended promotion would be discontinued. This would be dictated by whether or not the extra cost was enough to offset the benefits in terms of extra hamburgers sold. The choice, in other words, is not the consumer’s, and never was. Just like the choice of the legislator on how to restrict availability of food products judged to be unhealthy isn’t restricted to taxing consumers. A government could pass laws to restrict or ban marketing, or to limit the sugar content of drinks below a certain level, or to label foods more clearly. The benefit of the tax, however, is that – as the UK Office for Budgetary Responsibility expects – it will be passed on entirely to the consumer, thereby reinforcing the ideological notion that obesity, like lung cancer before it, represents a failure in the exercise of personal responsibility. A failure that must be priced accordingly.

The introduction of the ‘sugar tax’ by George Osborne was lumped in with his announcement of devastating cuts to disability benefits. Apart from opposition from the food industry, ranging from the obviously self-interested to the frankly baffling (one industry representative feared at the same time that it wouldn’t raise enough money and that consumers wouldn’t bear the brunt – which apparently would be a bad thing), the tax has also been accused of being classist. However on this latter score I find its defences more interesting than the attacks.

On the one hand, you have the Dickensian paternalism of Jamie Oliver, who cried on cue in front of a camera at the reception he got in ‘the fattest town in the US’ by citizens less than impressed by his decision to reform them, and who has championed the tax in front of a select committee of the House of Commons as the means of ‘sending naughty kids to the naughty step’. On the other, you have the pragmatic rationalism of the likes of Henry Zeffman, who defended the tax on account of its being regressive. ‘Well of course it’s regressive,’ he wrote. ‘So is sugar and so are its effects. The country’s obesity crisis … disproportionately affects the poorest.’ He went on:

That’s not to say the levy is a silver bullet. There are background socioeconomic factors which mean that the most poor too often consume unhealthy diets. Further benefit cuts are hardly going to help in that regard.

Gorge on the saturated irony content of this argument: obesity disproportionately affects the poor. The poor have just been made even poorer, therefore will soon be more obese. Therefore taxing their consumption is an even more logical step.

Evidently Zeffman’s vocabulary doesn’t include conjunctions such as instead or but also. His premise lucidly states that poverty, and not the high affordability of sugary drinks, is the problem. Therefore, he should conclude, alleviating that poverty ought to be the solution.

But he has no problem with a government that exacerbates poverty with one hand, and taxes consumption regressively with the other, as if the two measures weren’t produced in the same political space. We must always make distinctions, he appears to say. We must above all be rational.

So long as we are talking health, there is nothing healthy for our societies in heaping stigma upon obese people, an act whose consequences are both psychological – for the individuals affected – and more broadly ideological.

Obesity is the latest sin of the poor, like malnutrition was one hundred years ago. I’ve had the opportunity to write before for this magazine about Maud Pember Reeves’ remarkable study of working-class lives in early twentieth-century London Round About a Pound a Week. That study into the food habits of the inhabitants of the suburb of Lambeth actually began as a mission to civilise them. More specifically, to inculcate in the mothers of those one-income families the principles of the neonate science of nutrition and in particular what Pember Reeves and her fellow high-society socialist women called ‘the gospel of porridge’.

Porridge, they reasoned, is cheaper than a breakfast of margarine and toast, and far more nutritious. Their mission therefore, as well as documenting the flawed diets of those families, was to initiate them to the simple practice of preparing this cornerstone meal. However – and this is what makes Pember Reeves a better human than Jamie Oliver – what the book ends up recounting is quite a different story from the one the author expected to tell. Her conclusion is this: the women of Lambeth managed as well as anyone could, better than Pember Reeves – still armed with science but deprived of her income – would have herself. And this goes for the porridge too, which would have taken far too long to make, and even if the women somehow had had the time, they lacked a good enough pot to ensure it wouldn’t burn, and even if somehow they had had the time and a good enough pot, they couldn’t afford the cream or milk to make it palatable to the husband and the children.

It is quite possible that a sugar tax would work, by a very limited definition of working, but I wish we could tax paternalism instead. I wish we could tax the logic that says that if the poor suffer poor health, it’s because of poor habits. Perhaps, like Pember Reeves, some people need to be made to see. To be made to survive on little money and less time, not for a week – as in a Survivor-style holiday – but for a year or a decade. Then they might grasp that the choice afforded to us by market capitalism is false, an absurdity, like asking for a medium Frozen Coke when the large one also costs one dollar and one dollar is all you have.


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Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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        1. No, it really isn’t. We know that obesity strongly correlates with poverty. So taxing obesity is really a way of taxing poverty, which is not at all dissimilar to taxing someone for being short.

          1. Except that taxing sugar or obesity or cigarettes aims to change behaviour (restrictions and education around cigarettes demonstratably worked; again I don’t disagree that a straight sugar tax is a good ‘policy’). Taxing someone because they are short will never change a thing. Therefore, it is a faulty comparison.

            Let’s just agree that you wrote a good article and that the only option is to dismantle capitalism.

  1. Governments are unjustly too slow off the mark to capitalise on a good thing when they see one. Why not a salt tax, a window (screen) tax etc. etc. etc. …

  2. Great article. Would have been great to see a small nod to sugar’s destructive colonial influence (specifically the hundreds of years of the slave trade fueled by the white middle class’s obsession with it, and the fact that, worldwide, people of colour are disproportionately affected by the diseases increased sugar consumption brings).

  3. Easter eggs indeed! Why not tax food and drug companies for producing commodities that damage human health, so forcing them to think more positively and change their ways, rather than being out to make a quick easy buck from negative products? Better still, ban unhealthy foods and dodgy medicines altogether, rather than taxing people who are short, whether of money, or in social stature.

  4. I disagree with the summation entirely. I would argue that capitalism (and globalisation which laissez faire lends itself to) has given us a variety of food choice (good and bad) unseen by any generation before us, and certainly over any other economic system. Have a look at the choice of fresh meat, fish, fruit, and veges available in supermarkets every season of the year. The diets of command economies trend always to subsistence the more the ‘command’ regulating is, and the less of a market allowed.

    Noting, also, this debate turns on over-eating, wrong-eating, whatever, not starvation, I reckon those who are slamming ‘capitalism’ have rather lost the point. (Albeit noting we don’t have capitalist societies in the West, just centrally banked/controlled command economies, with enough of a nod to markets still to get some of the benefits.)

    Ultimately, as with all taxation, food taxes can be viewed more appropriately on a philosophical level: a tax on food choice is a tax on choice, and at a level in our lives, lifestyle choices, no state should be involving itself with.

    1. Been thinking on this overnight and realised I’ve not pushed my point home. The central error in this piece is in Giovanni’s final sentence, quote:

      Then they might grasp that the choice afforded to us by market capitalism is false, an absurdity, like asking for a medium Frozen Coke when the large one also costs one dollar and one dollar is all you have.

      No, the choices afforded by capitalism are very real, but Giovanni doesn’t want to see that. The choice with that $1 is not between a medium coke and a large one. Admittedly I’ve not bought a coke (or soft drink) in over 30 years, but can I suggest tap water is free, and coke is dreadful; why would you buy any quantity, and not an apple, for example, with the $1 instead?

      And then of course, there’s my vege garden. At most probably takes me an hour a week, supplies all our basic needs.

      It’s always about choices, self responsibility, and self reliance.

      1. “why would you buy any quantity, and not an apple, for example, with the $1 instead”

        As Coke made clear it its ads – Coke is ‘The Real Thing!’ For what it’s worth (and the writer, doubtless, will have his own ideas, and put it better) that’s what I thought when I first read the article, before realizing the underpinnings of capitalist ideology, the fantasies used to buffer the Real, don’t work for me, unlike those sugar coated underclasses being targeted successfully by McDonald’s.

      2. So Overland has ‘classical liberal’ trolls now, trumpeting the moralistic rhetoric of ‘choice’? Of course, classical liberalism is as dead as dead can be, and true laissez-faire leads to outcomes which are decidedly illiberal, thus the ‘classical’ version of liberalism is now replaced by the neo version, in which the state is an activist for (certain sectors of) the market. I am reminded of the aptly-named Workchoices legislation as the exemplar of this sort of liberalism, in which the ‘choice’ given to workers was between a cut in pay and unemployment.
        The assumptions on display here don’t do much to counter Tiso’s argument. As if everybody has a garden of their own, or a spare hour for gardening. ‘Self-reliance’ is the Thatcherite illusion by which the comfortably-off, who almost-always derived their comfort with social support, try to prevent others from having the same support. It’s a narcissistic fantasy, not a political philosophy.

        1. I ask questions related directly to the piece, and make pertinent points, and that’s trolling?


          That’s the closed circuit of progressivism that venues like Overland can hopefully try to overcome, (unless it wants to be another echo chamber).

          Another question. What do Giovanni, Lolly Twist or David plan to replace capitalism with to coordinate the food supply?

        2. Honestly don’t know which side of the political divide is more patronising to the poor. The ‘harden up and don’t be an idiot’ side or the ‘don’t be mean, the poor can’t help it’ side. My only conclusion is that yes, a sugar tax is moralising and poorly aimed, but the unfortunate fact is that the government will have to nudge people to avoid unhealthy foods, like with cigarettes. Proper education and more money for the poor are obvious ways to do this.

          Bit silly to bring up gardening, Mark, that is irrelevant to any point you’re trying to make. More pertinent to point out that a bag of carrots literally costs a dollar.

          1. Thanks for the reasoned reply Thomas.

            My instance of a vege garden is apt: peeps can look after themselves. Any family we’re talking of here, lets add up how much time spent watching telly for a start. Bet one hour a week can be spared.

            And tap water is free. All day at my desk I drink water and green tea; cost, virtually nothing. There is a choice, many, outside the poison that is coke.

            My point was do the respondents above, and the author of this piece, seriously contend these peeps are being frog marched into supermarkets and forced to buy coke. No. It’s a choice. And if not responsible or clued up enough to make such a simple choice, then perhaps having a family wasn’t your thing.

            There are always choices. And even in our crippled market economy, the choices are immense across variety and cost. Only a free market can coordinate food supply well; look at every command economy, including Venezuela today, and the disaster that is centralised food planning.

            And as soon as you give the state moral authority to ‘nudge’ us on lifestyle, you give them carte blanche in all aspects of our lives. That’s unacceptable to me and anyone who understood the birthright of being born in the West was a free, voluntary society. Which is no longer the case. Unfortunately we have progressivism partly to blame for that.

            Progressivism is the uber nanny state; god help us adn keep us away from the well intentioned gulags of altruism. (Said as an atheist).

            Cheers. I’ll bow out now.

  5. And now Jamie Oliver is giving women advice on how ‘easy’ and ‘free’ breastfeeding is, which, given that many women can not choose to breastfeed as their jobs won’t allow it, is false.

  6. I think some of the comments here have overlooked some of the material and psychological consequences of not having money and/or choices (which Giovanni illustrated in his original piece). Why would someone feel like cooking after a 12-hour work day? Or if they don’t have their own kitchen (when I think of the working poor, I think of Ehrenreich’s co-workers in Nickel and Dimed – who lived in motels because they couldn’t afford rent)? Or if they have any of the mental health issues that often come with long-term unemployment? Why do people think cooking (still such a gendered chore incidentally) is so easy??

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