Monday, 18 April 2016

The social justice case for a sugar tax

There is currently a proposal before the New Zealand Government to put a tax on sugar as a public health measure. I’m afraid it’s unlikely to fly. Not only is it both a tax and a public health measure, neither of which will endear it to the National Party, but sugar and sugary products are imported goods, which means (since we’ve signed the TPPA) that if we do implement the tax we will be sued, most likely by Coca-Cola, to make us un-implement it again. Anything can be a “disguised restriction on trade” if you have good enough lawyers.

I’ve recently discovered Stephanie Rodgers’ blog Boots Theory. I put it on my reading list because I mostly find her perspective on New Zealand politics illuminating. However, as my regular readers both know, when I write it’s almost always because I’ve found something I disagree with. And I disagree with Rodgers on the sugar tax. Unfortunately, Boots Theory is a Wordpress blog, and as I’ve had occasion to mention before, I can’t comment on Wordpress blogs for some reason.

In a recent post, Rodgers did what I just did a couple of paragraphs ago and inserted a snarky little aside on one issue into her argument on another:

When we’re against slut-shaming but say Kim Kardashian should cover up; when we’re against government policing poor people’s choices but think a sugar tax will force them to “make better choices”; when we’re totally pro-choice but think three abortions is way too many...

I do understand how a sugar tax might be seen as “policing poor people’s choices”. I get what Rodgers is saying. Thing is, though, poor people don’t have many choices to start with; that’s what being poor means. They buy junk food and fizzy drinks because that’s all they can afford, not because they don’t know what’s good for them. When I was getting sent to “get a job you lazy bludger” workshops at WINZ, this was a point raised by other attendees who, unlike me at the time, had had jobs before and then lost them. They could feel their health deteriorating from the cheaper food they were having to settle for. I’ve noticed the same myself since, whenever I’ve had to cut back temporarily for one reason or another.

This is exactly the sort of thing that Rodgers is otherwise strong on. Her own blog’s title, Boots Theory, is derived from a Terry Pratchett quote that sums it up:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
This was the Captain Samuel Vimes “Boots” theory of socio-economic unfairness.
Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

The Vimes Theory answers another question that’s been raised lately – whether we should introduce a Universal Basic Income to replace welfare benefits. The answer is yes, because it would help get people out of the shoddy-goods poverty trap. Well, I contend that it also applies to the sugar-tax proposal. Poor people stay poor partly because they’re spending money mitigating the impact of illnesses such as Type II diabetes, coronary heart disease, and runaway dental caries, all caused at least in part by cheap, unhealthy food. We need to undercut the unfair advantage that sugar (and saturated fats, but one thing at a time) have at the checkout.

The idea goes like this. If you put a tax on sugar, businesses that sell sugary foods and drinks will have to put their prices up on those products. Then people will buy less of them. That means less money for the business, and businesses like money, so to bring their customers back they will drop the prices of other foods that aren’t subject to the tax. Hopefully these foods will, at least on average, be healthier.

Now, granted, it’s unlikely the prices on those healthier foods will drop all the way down to the present price of junk food. But this is where the health benefits come in. I’ve argued before that we should implement a rating scheme for rental housing, because what people will pay extra in rent they’ll make back in lower rates of childhood asthma and rheumatic fever – just as, when toilets were made compulsory a couple of centuries ago, the poor made back their increased rent costs in not dying of cholera.

Cholera is caused by faecal contamination of drinking water; asthma and rheumatic fever are caused by cold, damp, overcrowded housing. What diseases are caused by sugar? Well, dental caries to start with, which is painful, disfiguring, severely harms your chances in a job interview, and has never been adequately covered by public health funding for no better reason than that many people (including politicians) don’t like dentists. Untreated caries can spread into the bone, and these infections are sometimes known to trigger cancers or get into the airway or the blood-sinuses of the brain and kill.

Sugar is connected to atherosclerosis, hypertension, and Type II diabetes. This may be where Rodgers’ sore point with the sugar tax arises, because these conditions also correlate with body fat (especially the diabetes), and Rodgers rightly takes a firm stand against shaming people for their body fat. Fat-shaming, quite apart from being a nasty thing to do, emphatically does not “motivate people to do better”. In fact it discourages them – who’s going to want to jog or go to the gym if everyone’s giving them grossed-out looks? People in the real world have gotten fatter as people in advertising photos have gotten thinner.

Human nutrition is one of the less firmly-established health sciences, because it’s hard to do randomized controlled trials with your participants’ entire diet. Nevertheless, such indications as we do have all point in a consistent direction. We can’t say that obesity causes all these illnesses, but it definitely looks like what causes obesity also causes the illnesses, and one of the causes is nutrition. (No links because I got this from health science lectures, not websites – many separate health science lectures.) That’s one major reason why it’s the poor who suffer first, the other probably being that a work-week on the minimum wage doesn’t typically offer many opportunities for exercise. So no, I don’t accept the formulation that the sugar tax is about “forcing the poor to make better choices”. It’s about making better choices available.

But the point about the financial burden is well made; it will take time for retailers to adjust their pricing of other foods, and their first response will likely be to cheapen fatty ones like butter or chips. Therefore, rather than bring in a new sugar tax, I have an alternative suggestion. What say we remove, from foods made without sugar (and with a low saturated fat content), the 15% Goods and Services Tax (GST) that New Zealand currently levies on all retail products? Then we would have a sugar tax and we would have made things easier for people, not harder.

Oh, right. I forgot. We have a National government. Making things harder for poor people (to “motivate” them) is the point.

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