Budget 2016: Osborne's sugar tax is another punishment on the poor

Price on being poor: A sugar tax on drinks is likely to hit lower income groups hardest
Price on being poor: A sugar tax on drinks is likely to hit lower income groups hardest
Ian Dunt By

It's the standard model for a chancellor who takes from the poor to give to the modestly well off. One of George Osborne's rabbits-out-the-hat at the end of the Budget was a tax on sugary drinks.

It was a major victory for Britain's public health lobby, which has been lobbying for some sort of sugar tax for years. The "levy", as Osborne put it, will be introduced in two years, supposedly giving drinks companies time to prepare – although that did nothing to stop the value of their shares tumbling as soon as the announcement was made. It'll be based on sugar content, with a forecast of £520 million in new revenue.

"I'm not prepared to look back at my time in this parliament and say to my children's generation: 'I'm sorry'," Osborne told the Commons.

He will have to anyway, because sugar taxes do not work. A recent briefing by the Institute of Economic Affairs' Christopher Snowden showed consumers tend to switch to cheaper brands or go to cheaper shops rather than stop drinking sugary drinks in response to a price increase. Basically, the calorie intake remains the same, but most people start buying inferior products.


The tax would be immoral, however, whether it worked or it didn't, because it fails to respect the choices of the poor and strips them of even more cash, while leaving the middle classes mostly alone. It's double regressive: firstly by being a tax on a product, rather than income, and secondly by targeting a product disproportionately consumed by those on lower incomes.

The correlation between poverty and obesity is well documented. The lower the household income, the greater the chance of a child in it being obese. In adults, the same link is present, although, for reasons which we don't quite understand, it is more pronounced in women than men.

There's a big debate about this link. Is it to do with education? Is it about healthy food being too expensive? Perhaps there is some self-perpetuating cycle between the produce sold in deprived areas and demand which beds in over time.

I have another theory, for which I have no evidence whatsoever except my unfounded suspicions of human behaviour. It is that bodily and short-term pleasures – unhealthy food, alcohol, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle – are joys more often embraced by those forced to do menial labour at work. When you're a lecturer, or a doctor, or a businessman, you get considerable happiness from your social status, from the fact people are interested in you at dinner parties. You get day-to-day pleasure from the fact that you are given major responsibilities and left alone to deal with them. You find joy and meaning in the satisfaction of completing demanding tasks and being recognised for it by your peers.

The same is not true when you work at the cash register or on the factory floor. It is tedious, sometimes back-breaking work. The combination of boredom and physical intensity is often particularly oppressive. It pushes people towards immediate, predominantly physical pleasures: the pint and the pork scratchings, the one night stand, the binge drinking, the greasy burger, the cigarettes and the sugary drinks.

But for many members of the holier-than-thou middle-classes, this is intolerable. The working poor have to be punished into behaving how the middle classes do. Although of course that doesn't extend to raising wages and trying to improve the quality of work that people do. It is less 1960s idealism than 1860s Victorian paternalism.

The fact that Osborne's sugar tax could be tolerated by the left says a lot about the lack of class consciousness in British politics. No-one with a grasp on income disparity could think that a hectoring, punitive tax of this sort is fair or desirable

But is has somehow become the sum total of our national debate on childhood obesity, something which speaks volumes about the curtain-twitching, Protestant attitude we have towards these things. No-one mentions the idea of subsidising healthy food, or gym membership. It is never about spending money helping the poor so that they can more easily make healthy choices if they desire to. It is always about punishing them, hammering their already limited income until they do what wealthier people want them to.

There are areas where action on sugar would be sensible and freedom-expanding. Ready-made meals, for instance, regularly pile on the sugar because otherwise the product wouldn't actually taste of anything. This is not sugar as something someone is choosing to consume. This is sugar in a product which most people do not think contains it, masquerading as flavour. But here, where consumers have not been given the information to make personal choices, the product has been left entirely alone. On sugary drinks, where people do know what they're doing, the poor are being hit with a punitive tax.

The Conservative party has often responded to accusations that it hammers the poor by saying it believes in personal responsibility. In actual fact, it both punishes the poor and disrespects personal responsibility. Osborne has today made that quite clear.

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