Why a sugar tax won't work

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The Greens say that their Sugar Tax policy aims to tackle childhood obesity by changing the diets of Australian children. A noble cause on the face of it, but in reality it is a lazy, paternalistic policy that unfairly targets low income families. The Green policy fails to address the fact that obesity is not a disease with a single cause, but a multifactorial disorder involving both environmental and psychological factors. A policy that aims to make sugary drinks unobtainable by low income families is a tax on on the underprivileged, which only serves to prove the Haves know better than the Have Nots about what is good for them.

We live in an age where social media drives a culture of excess. Our food culture at present is centred around humongous Instagrammable burgers and monster shakes. The pressure to have bigger, better, crazier food on your plate or in your hand is intense. Nobody denies that soft drinks are unhealthy, but the ubiquity of other calorific treats in our social media feeds suggests there is more to an unhealthy diet than soft drink alone. Obesity is known to be a multifactorial disorder, caused not only by sugar consumption, but by the consumption of high fat foods, a lack of exercise, increased disposable income, and an increase in sedentary lifestyles. We use our cars and computers more, we play less sport, and we have more money with which to buy more calories. Taking aim at sugar as the solution to the obesity crisis fundamentally misunderstands the complexity of the disorder. Yes, we can tax soft drinks to attempt to make them less desirable, but the message that is being sent to the consumer is virtually the same as those dodgy internet ads - lose belly fat with this one weird tax. 

The Greens’ policy states they will only fund preventative health and exercise programs after they raise money through the tax. This sort of thinking is not only narrow-minded, but unsustainable. With the soft drink market already experiencing a downturn due to changing consumer habits, the likelihood of being able to fund millions of dollars worth of future programs is dwindling. If The Greens want to tackle obesity, changing current attitudes to food and increasing physical activity in the immediate future should be first on the list. What the Greens should be focusing on is making exercise accessible to low income families. Extracurricular sport is prohibitively expensive. Registration fees can be anywhere from $200-$500 a season. How is a family of 4 kids on a single income supposed to afford netball or AFL on the weekend? Uniform costs alone are out of the reach of many families. Swimming lessons, which you would think would be a necessity in Australia, have similar costs. It is, frankly, a tragedy that such basic opportunities for physical activity are denied to low-income families.

Arguments in favour of the Sugar Tax have drawn parallels with alcohol and tobacco taxes that have made an impact on the general health of the population. This is a false equivalence - you can’t eat tobacco. A lot of families, both low and high income, regularly buy soft drinks in bulk for the family to take to work or school. Getting out of the habit of buying soft drinks is not as easy as it sounds. It takes time, effort, and careful budgeting for many. ‘Just drink water instead’ is often thrown about by Greens supporters, many of whom have never had to consider how they are going to buy everyone in their family a water bottle on a low income. The people who argue ‘just drink water’ are the same people who Instagram their monster shakes, the hypocrisy clearly escaping them.

The elephant in the room in regards to the Sugar Tax - and with a lot of healthy eating programs - is the psychological attraction of soft drinks. Soft drinks are marketed to appeal to our emotions and desire for social status. Coca Cola didn’t become one of the world’s most popular beverages through taste alone. They have had decades of successful marketing campaigns that encouraged consumers to believe life would be better with Coke. If a tax is brought in to prevent low income earners from consuming soft drinks such Coke, the message is clear that low income earners don’t deserve the same fun that high income earners do. If you want to buy a Coke with your lunch, just go to uni and get a good job. Circumstances beyond your control have prevented that? Too bad. You’re not allowed to have any fun or a Coke, if you’re poor. This attitude from The Greens shows how out of touch they are with low income families. They fail to recognise how their Sugar Tax comes across like a rap on the knuckles on the hands of the underprivileged for being naughty and sneaking a treat, rather than a preventative measure to fight obesity. Considering Coca Cola reps are sent into virtually every retailer to set up the planogram to their liking (strategic positioning of products to ensure you buy the ones they want), maybe we could actually take a leaf out of the tobacco book in how we treat soft drinks - using plain packaging.

Preventing childhood obesity is vitally important to the long term health of the Australian population and the government needs to act to help solve the problem. But that means getting kids off the couch and into exercise that is accessible and affordable. We need to educate them on their food choices and teach them why choosing a soft drink is not their best option, now and in the long term. What we don’t want to do is to increase the status symbol of soft drinks by making them only accessible to the rich

 Kitty is a Psychology graduate, currently studying a Postgraduate Data Science degree, and has worked in Health for almost a decade. At home, she is bossed around by a 2 and 9 year old, in that order.


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  • commented 2017-02-21 11:51:00 +1100
    This isn’t a very good argument against a Sugar Tax, but rather elaborates with other elements.

    > Arguments in favour of the Sugar Tax have drawn parallels with alcohol and tobacco taxes that have made an impact on the general health of the population. This is a false equivalence – you can’t eat tobacco.<

    Actually they are equivalent, and the example given by the author is on of false equivalence. You can’t smoke sugar either.

    But that’s not the point – the point is that if the price of a good rises, the demand falls.