Sunday 20 March 2016

What did I tell you?

Only a couple of days ago, I posted about the government’s proposed sugar tax and suggested that this concession would just be blood in the water to the shoal of public health sharks. Needless to say, the egregious mockney twat Jamie Oliver was seen to be celebrating.

And they didn’t waste any time. Only four days after the Budget, Alex Renton came up with an article in the Guardian entitled The sugar tax is a great idea. Why not go after processed foods too? which recycles virtually every popular health fascist trope. It happily diverts on to the topic of alcohol, and pointedly says “The story of tobacco shows that this is just the first step on a very long road.” All you silly people who pooh-poohed “first they came for the smokers”, where do you stand now? Slippery slope? More like slippery precipice!

There’s a huge raft of arguments against this. The first is that it simply won’t work. It’s well-established that taxes intended to change behaviour will only be effective if they’re set at a pretty punitive level, and if there’s an obvious alternative with a lower tax rate. If people like eating crisps and biscuits, they’ll simply pay a bit more and continue to do so. There’s also plenty of scope for switching to lower-priced products – in any of these categories, there’s a huge gap between the value and premium brands. And it will have a disproportionate effect on the poor – even if they spend no more on “unhealthy” foods than the better-off, it’s still a much bigger chunk of their income.

The whole thing is also incredibly snobbish, as coruscatingly pointed out by Brendan O’Neill a few years ago. It’s basically denigrating the food choices of the less well off as compared with those of the comfortable middle classes:

People who eat junk food tend to be looked upon as "junk people". They are judged as lazy for buying microwaveable meals, and as bad parents for feeding their children "shit". Their expanding waistlines are considered a physical manifestation of their moral turpitude, evidence that they are heretics in an era of healthy living. That is why "concern" for their diet can so quickly turn into hateful comments about their child-rearing techniques or class background: because food has become the one issue through which it is acceptable to vomit bile on to the allegedly slovenly sections of society.
Setting aside any questions of practicality or class bias, the whole idea is just profoundly wrong on a moral and philosophical basis. Going back three hundred years or more, the Enlightenment promoted the concept that adult human beings were intelligent, self-aware creatures, with a responsibility for their own destiny. As the great philosopher John Locke said, “Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.”

Later on, the growth of Labour parties stemmed from the view that working people were worthy of respect and should be treated as capable of being responsible for making their own decisions. To quote Brendan O’Neill again:

Labourite parties emerged a hundred-odd years ago to represent the interests and ideas of working people. These parties were built on a conviction that "ordinary people" were also political players, were sussed, intelligent, autonomous beings whose worldview and needs deserved a political outlet. Now, in an eye-swivelling turnaround, Labour views the little people, not as political creatures worthy of representation, but as corruptible creatures in need of protection – from adverts, from alcohol, from chips, from chocolate.
It is fundamentally patronising to take the view that working people can’t be trusted to make their own decisions and have to be told what to do by the State, but sadly this seems to be the view of the modern-day Labour Party. In my experience, working-class people tend to have a pretty good idea of what makes sense for them, especially as they’re not motivated by politically correct prejudices.

Yes, we do have issues in society with obesity and poor nutrition, although they are often exaggerated. As far as I can see, the oft-threatened “obesity timebomb” has signally failed to explode. I’m just a mischievous middle-aged twat who writes a blog about pubs and beer, and I don’t regard it as my responsibility to come up with solutions to all the problems of the world. But I strongly hold to the principle that adults should be treated as being responsible for their own lives, and that whole population solutions to limited problems are invariably counter-productive.


  1. I do think there is a problem. I agree taxation is not the solution. Education is not the solution either.

    I think the problem is food companies, marketers and retailers exploiting people. Sugar is highly addictive and mostly consumed unwittingly or through manipulation. The argument that people make their own free choices in all things ignores the extant to which they can be influenced by others. There is sugar in all sorts of food you rightly don't expect. Much tougher regulation is the answer in my opinion.

    1. This is precisely the point -we are not idiots manipulated by food companies, marketers or retailers. It's the clowns like you who think we are that are the problem.

    2. Makes you wonder why the food companies, marketers & retailers spend so much money trying to manipulate us doesn't it? What idiots they must be.

    3. Are we really such idiots that we're manipulated by food companies, marketers and retilers? Yet not by governments...

    4. You don't have to be an idiot to be influenced. A lot of marketing works on the subconcious. They are really very good at it and there is no shame in admitting that somtimes your choices are not completely your own. We can even be complicit in being fooled. Also, no one is refuting that sugar is highly addictive and added extra into foods that you would never expect it to be? Because that is a very direct form of manipulation.

    5. " one is refuting that sugar is highly addictive..." Well, I am: the idea is utter balderdash. You do know what "addictive" means, don't you? I like sugar, but detest it in tea or coffee; am I an addict? I like curry, and will (and have) have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner; am I a curry addict? Like salt, sugar is one of the most effective and easily-available flavour enhancers. Once sugar (and salt) has been demonised as tobacco has been, what next? Well, alcohol is certainly on that list; others want to add red meat, or just meat in general. Then what? The future you desire, Kieran, looks bleak, indeed.

    6. Ah yes, the old view that industry is basically a malign conspiracy against the public, and not something that basically exists to make money by selling people they want to buy.

      And even the smallest artisan producer will happily sell you sugary cakes and fatty pies.

    7. "A lot of marketing works on the subconscious"

      lol. The tinfoil hat brigade are out in force today I see.

    8. @PY: Can we agree that there is such a thing as the subconscious mind? Is it such a leap to realise it can be influenced? I'm not paranoid, i'm not a conspiracy theorist. Maybe go watch some Derren Brown? Seriously, the point I was making is not even contraversial.

      @RR: I know what 'addictive' means, thanks. Sugar is addictive. Have a read of this, it's really interesting:

      Now about the comparisons being made with smoking - if smoking has been demonised that's too bad. At least we have all the facts about it now and can make a more informed choice. It's bad for you, we can all agree on that? So the industry has admitted it. Great. At least it's not being pushed on people with adverts now either.

      We are still free to smoke and may we be free to have as much sugar as we want as well, but let's regulate an industry that is exploitative.That's all i'm saying.

    9. I hardly think quoting George Monbiot is going to win you much credibility.

    10. KL: you insist that sugar is addictive, so, no, I doubt you really know what "addictive" means. That it is a foodstuff that a lot of people enjoy does NOT make it addictive. Yes, there are be people claiming that they are “sugar addicts”; while there is a certain possibility that people could become addicted to, well, anything, the more likely explanation is that they are dodging their responsibilities to themselves, and finding someone else to blame for their condition.

    11. OK lets disagree on this one. Good blogging as always Curmudgeon. I seem to read everything you and Monbiot write and get a lot of food for thought from both of you. Highly addictive ;0

    12. “I hardly think quoting George Monbiot is going to win you much credibility.”
      Yes, its never a good idea for credibility to quote tireless zealots and Monbiot is a huge yawn- still people do keep doing so. There’s one bloke who on his blog always approvingly quotes Christopher Snowden- the mirror image of Monbiot.

      There is undoubtedly an increasing tendency to now seek to not only encourage healthier lifestyles but to demand tools to ensure this and it is no surprise that the tobacco campaign is seen by those that wish to do so as something to emulate. I can understand one key point underpinning such campaigns- that we cannot really afford the costs involved in dealing with some of the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle, but ultimately I do find these campaigns tiresome as, notwithstanding the cost to the NHS issue, they are all fundamentally different to the smoking one. You can’t breathe in someone elses fat and you don’t make me unhealthy by drinking alcohol or eating chips or not having your five a day. Smoking is a different league and I fully support that it has been marginalised in public places and even if not banning smoking had meant there wouldn’t be this increasing nannying (unlikely) i’m still prepared to put up with it to see smoking banned from public places.

      As for it affecting pubs- what the ban appears to have done is just bring to an earlier than planned end a number of pubs that were going to eventually close anyway. Pubcos have been the real menace in the pub closure stakes because they called time on so many pubs that weren’t in an ultimately terminal condition just to cash in.

    13. Re Chris Snowdon, as Barry Goldwater said, "Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice." There's a massive difference between that and extremism in the defence of control.

      I disagree with Monbiot on pretty much everything, and he once called me, as a member of an organisation, an antisocial bastard. But I respect him as an intelligent and thoughtful commentator, and one of the few Greens to have expressed support for nuclear power as the only practical way of eliminating carbon dependence, short of regressing to a pre-industrial society.

  2. Slight tangent but on the one hand there's the oft-trumpeted "obesity timebomb" that, apparently, means that the generation growing up now might have a lower life expectancy than their parents and yet at the same time, the retirement age keeps being raised because we're all apparently living longer. It's all nonsense.

  3. The bit I've never quite understood is on the one hand there is a public health issue that the parents will outlive their kids and there is a pensions issue because people are living longer so I cannot retire at 50 and wank about in shitty pubs for 40 years until I am 90.

    Either we are all living longer or we're dying younger. It can't be both.

  4. All you silly people who pooh-poohed “first they came for the smokers”, where do you stand now?

    Good knockabout stuff, Curmudgeon, but I don't remember as much of that at the time as you have sometimes claimed. (Please note: 'not much' does not equal 'none')

    1. On the contrary, Nev, at the time of the smoking ban, many people went to great trouble to explain how tobacco was entirely different from anything else and there was no way the principle would be extended.

      But it wasn't too long before one or more of alcohol, fat, sugar, salt, obesity etc. were being described as "the new tobacco", and the tobacco control campaign was being lauded as a template for action in other areas.

      So, having been proved right, I can bask in a little Schadenfreude.

  5. I disagree that you've been proved right. A few 'storm in a teacup' debates on beer blogs is scarcely representative of general opinion.

    1. In what way have I not been proved right?

      (1) Around the time of the smoking ban, many people from both the "beer" and "anti-smoking" camps argued strongly that alcohol and tobacco were very different, and that the smoking ban wouldn't set a precedent for restrictions in other areas. I haven't got a time machine to prove it, but that's certainly my recollection.

      (2) The smoking ban has damaged the pub trade and been a factor in the closure of large numbers of pubs. I don't think anyone seriously denies that.

      (3) The anti-tobacco crusade has been seized upon as a template for campaigns to restrict other things in the field of food and drink. Since the public health lobby are happy to say this themselves, we can be confident it's true.

      So, again, on which points have I not been proved right?

      Anyway, I see you've responded in detail on your own blog, so I may have more to say there.


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