Saturday, 19 March 2016

Sugar and spice and all things in moderation

*Deep breath*

Sugar Tax.  I don't remember anything that has so divided that diabetes online community.  Sure we all have different views, that's what makes us a community.  Of course we don't all agree - where would the fun be in that?  But the announcement of the Sugar Tax has everyone scrambling for an opinion.

I'll admit a few things from the start.... firstly, I'm pro Sugar Tax (for reasons which I'll explain), and secondly, I'm not sure writing this blog is the best idea I've ever had - experience tells me it could end up with me taking a week off the internet....  It's important to realise that my opinion is no more valid than anyone else's.  I'm not right, but neither am I wrong.  It's just what I 'reckon'.  And who doesn't love a good reckon?

So I'm pro Sugar Tax... light your torches and grab your pitch forks.  Why am I in favour of it?  Incentivisation.  My academic background is in economics (so I'm also generally pro Free Markets too), and I like the theory of how individuals react to incentives.  That theory generally being that when faced with a choice over two 'identical' products, the rational choice is to choose the cheapest one.

Now Coke and Diet Coke aren't quite identical, but they're pretty close.  If one is cheaper than the other - the rational choice is to choose the cheapest one right?  Why pay over the odds for a Coke when Diet Coke is (almost) identical?  Add to that, the differences are that Coke has more sugar (and more calories) then you're almost winning twice.  Changing behaviour is difficult, but people acting rationally, understand the dis-incentive in choosing more expensive Coke, over cheaper Diet Coke - so it should work.

But this is where it gets tricky.  In theory, theory and practice are the same.  In practice, they aren't.

Sugar Tax comes with a whole host of other things to consider.  Is the level of tax going to be big enough to make everyone behave rationally?  Probably not (price elasticity of demand is what you're thinking of there).  Are there socio-economic implications of increasing tax on soft drinks?  Yes of course.  There are loads - too many to even begin to discuss here.

Is Jamie Oliver a bit annoying, and prone to the odd diabetes-related gaffe?  Yes of course.  Isn't it a half measure if it doesn't include sugary milkshakes?    Yeah.   What about my hypo treatment?  Agreed.  There are alternatives, but you need something that works for you.  Thankfully Diabetes UK have our back on that one.   Why not make fruit and veg a load cheaper instead?  Yeah why not?  Completely agree.  Ask a farmer how much he makes off a 20p cucumber...

In my humble opinion (which, remember, counts for no more and no less than yours), I think people hear the announcement of a Sugar Tax and assume it's the only solution being proposed.  I don't think it is, and don't see how it can be.  Affecting the behaviour of a huge number of consumers isn't going to happen overnight, and isn't going to be done by a 7p levy on a can of coke.

I think the majority of people know that being overweight and inactive is bad for you, but they don't change their lifestyle.  Many people also know that smoking is bad for you but people continue to do it.  Though that number continues to fall as tax rises and the number of places you can smoke decreases.  Multiple measures gradually affect behaviour.

We already have a limit on advertising junk food to kids.  Placing sweets near supermarket tills is on its way out.  Evidence shows that indeed in some parts of the world, sugar tax has some effect on changing behaviour.  It won't change the world overnight (not least because you won't see it for two years anyway).

It's easy to be cynical and say it's patronising, pointless, punishing those who are already worse off.  But it's also easy to think that we have a responsibility to ourselves to be healthy, to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease, strokes and Type 2 diabetes.  And if we don't want to, that's fine, but you'll have to pay a small premium for it.

Anyway - it's just what I reckon...



  1. Spot on Andy.
    For me I hope that the sugar tax just makes people think, that's all, just think what they are consuming.

    1. Should hopefully act as a "stop and think" moment!

  2. I think I agree with Tim Hartford why only introduce financial incentives for a very specific bit of the problem when it comes to high sugar food

    1. True. But hopefully this is part of a wider, all encompassing strategy. I think more incentives/disincentives will come into play with the childhood obesity strategy over the summer. Here's hoping. No single measure will solve the problem by any means

    2. It would be nice if that is the case but it does beg the question why the government haven't made it clear that it is part of a wider strategy

    3. Well they've been discussing Childhood Obesity Strategy since at least October last year

  3. I think now consumption of sugar will decrease after having sugar tax..

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