We’re all shit at eating well
Taxing sugar is proven to work; why are some people against it?
I have a love/hate relationship with health conferences. On the one hand, there’s (usually) great food, (sometimes) interesting talks, and (always) plenty of drinking.
On the other, there’s networking*.
But the amazing thing about health conferences isn’t the wonderful presentations, the amazing knowledge, or the fascinating networking dance of the newly-appointed associate professor (it’s beautiful to watch; it ends with a stunning display of pristine business cards showering the audience).
The amazing thing is the muffins.
I’m a health professional. I work in diabetes care. I know exactly how bad muffins are for you.
And yet, at every conference I go to, I gorge myself. They are terrible for me, there is no excuse, but they are there and they are free and I go nuts.
If you’re a human being, you’ve probably had the same experience. Whether it’s at your friend’s barbecue, a community sausage-sizzle, or the the time you spent a day going to every 7/11 within driving range to drink an endless sugary sea of slurpees.
It’s an almost universal human experience; there’s tasty food in front of you, and you eat until your stomach strains and you can barely walk. We have an evolutionary drive to eat fatty and sugary foods, which makes perfect sense for a hunter-gatherer always on the verge of starvation, but less so for a researcher sitting through a tedious presentation on figs.
And after the principle side-effect of numbing joy wears off, all the sugar and fat is processed by your body, stored as energy, and adds a few numbers to your waist measurement.
So it’s no surprise that modern society is getting fatter. Much fatter. So fat that we are now seeing incidences of disease that were never even on our radar before, like paediatric type 2 diabetes. The costs of obesity to our society are literally mind-boggling; we already spend >$5billion a year managing obesity in Australia, a figure which is expected to rapidly increase over the next 10 years.
There’s no silver bullet to end this epidemic. It’s taken us decades and billions of muffins to get to the point where more than half of the population is overweight or obese, and there’s no simple way to reverse this rising tide.
But a leading public health body recently released a report that could change our current path, just slightly, and save billions of dollars in the process. It could even save your life.
We love sugar. Our bodies can’t get enough. Put enough sugar in something, and we ignore the massive salt content, the terrible acidity, and gulp it down like there’s no tomorrow.
There is nowhere that this is more true than in sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs — public health jargon for any drink with added sugar like coke, lemonade, sweet iced tea, or hobo urine**). Increased consumption of SSBs has been definitively linked with higher rates of obesity, which is no surprise when you consider that many adults consume >20% of their recommended daily intake of calories just through sweet drinks.
Kids have a particularly sweet tooth, and are even more at risk from SSBs; the WHO recommends that kids minimize their intake of these drinks to almost nothing.
The question is, how can we stop people ruining their health with sugar?
The Grattan institute, a leading body for public health, recently released a report that provided a way forward. They showed that a small tax introduced on sugar could significantly impact obesity rates whilst providing a large cash sum that could be put towards obesity prevention.
Part of the reason that we know this is that it has worked before. Mexico implemented a similar tax, and has since seen important public health gains across the country. The UK is implementing an almost identical tax, along with states in the US and a number of countries worldwide.
To quote the Grattan report (bolding added for emphasis):
“ An excise tax on the sugar contained within SSBs is the best, and simplest, tax option to recoup some of the third-party costs generated by obesity and reduce consumption of SSBs. However, an SSB tax by itself will not solve Australia’s obesity problem.”
It’s good policy. Supported by evidence.
So why has our government called it “bonkers mad”?
Freedom and Terrible Policy
We don’t like the idea that our environment determines our health. You read about me eating muffins, and it’s natural to say “well, he could just ignore the muffins and their sweet chocolaty goodness”.
This is the “free will” argument. We all have responsibility for our own actions; if I choose to eat unhealthily, I’m to blame so why should anyone else pay for me? People should be free to choose, and if they choose unhealthy food, well that’s hardly my fault.
It sounds appealing. It sounds right.
But that isn’t what the evidence says.
There are a million factors that influence your weight, many of which you don’t control: how far to the local supermarket, what your mother ate whilst pregnant, whether you were breast-fed or not. You can decide not to eat the muffin, to drink the coke, but you can’t decide how many bicycle lanes are built around your home.
Free will plays a part. I could decide not to eat my body weight in muffins. But if there were no muffins there in the first place I would by default make a healthier choice.
That’s what a sugar tax does. It forces you to drink more healthily. And it works.
It will save money, and more importantly lives.
Being judgmental about obesity helps no one. It’s time to stop talking about free will and start talking about what actually works.
- *Hear the shudders of academics worldwide, and know it for what it is; a harbinger of the end times.
- **Otherwise known as Mountain Dew.