Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Of sugar taxes and porridge gospels

These days if you enter a McDonald’s restaurant in Australia or New Zealand and order a medium frozen Coke, they ask you if you wouldn’t rather have a large one, since they both cost $1 anyway. And why would you have the smaller one, when after all you can stop drinking it whenever you want? This basement price for the beverage – part of a promotion that began three years ago – could well be below cost, and seems designed to get you into the restaurant in the hope you will be persuaded to consume something else as well.

A large Frozen Coke contains the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar, give or take. The daily recommended intake for an adult is anywhere between seven and 10, depending on whom you ask. If the tax on soft drinks with a high sugar content approved a few mohths in the UK were extended to these parts as was most recently suggested by Green MP Julie Anne Genter  McDonald’s large Frozen Coke would likely attract the highest of the two levels of taxation, affecting the chain’s bottom line. But that’s not to say that the extended promotion would be discontinued. This would be dictated by whether or not the extra cost was enough to offset the benefits in terms of extra hamburgers sold. The choice, in other words, is not the consumer’s, and never was. Just like the choice of the legislator on how to restrict availability of food products judged to be unhealthy isn’t restricted to taxing consumers. A government could pass laws to restrict or ban marketing, or to limit the sugar content of drinks below a certain level, or to label foods more clearly. The benefit of the tax, however, is that – as the UK Office for Budgetary Responsibility expects – it will be passed on entirely to the consumer, thereby reinforcing the ideological notion that obesity, like lung cancer before it, represents a failure in the exercise of personal responsibility. A failure that must be priced accordingly.

The introduction of the ‘sugar tax’ by George Osborne was lumped in with his announcement of devastating cuts to disability benefits. Apart from opposition from the food industry, ranging from the obviously self-interested to the frankly baffling (one industry representative feared at the same time that it wouldn’t raise enough money and that consumers wouldn’t bear the brunt – which apparently would be a bad thing), the tax has also been accused of being classist. However on this latter score I find its defences more interesting than the attacks.

On the one hand, you have the Dickensian paternalism of Jamie Oliver, who cried on cue in front of a camera at the reception he got in ‘the fattest town in the US’ by citizens less than impressed by his decision to reform them, and who has championed the tax in front of a select committee of the House of Commons as the means of ‘sending naughty kids to the naughty step’. On the other, you have the pragmatic rationalism of the likes of Henry Zeffman, who defended the tax on account of its being regressive. ‘Well of course it’s regressive,’ he wrote. ‘So is sugar and so are its effects. The country’s obesity crisis … disproportionately affects the poorest.’ He went on:
That’s not to say the levy is a silver bullet. There are background socioeconomic factors which mean that the most poor too often consume unhealthy diets. Further benefit cuts are hardly going to help in that regard.
Gorge on the saturated irony content of this argument: obesity disproportionately affects the poor. The poor have just been made even poorer, therefore will soon be more obese. Therefore taxing their consumption is the next logical step.

Evidently Zeffman’s vocabulary doesn’t include conjunctions such as instead or but also. His premise lucidly states that poverty, and not the high affordability of sugary drinks, is the problem. Therefore, he should conclude, alleviating that poverty ought to be the solution.

But he has no problem with a government that exacerbates poverty with one hand, and taxes consumption regressively with the other, as if the two measures weren’t produced in the same political space. We must always make distinctions, he appears to say. We must above all be rational.

So long as we are talking health, there is nothing healthy for our societies in heaping stigma upon obese people, an act whose consequences are both psychological – for the individuals affected – and more broadly ideological.

Obesity is the latest sin of the poor, like malnutrition was one hundred years ago. I’ve had the opportunity to write before for Overland about Maud Pember Reeves’ remarkable study of working-class lives in early twentieth-century London Round About a Pound a Week. That study into the food habits of the inhabitants of the suburb of Lambeth actually began as a mission to civilise them. More specifically, to inculcate in the mothers of those one-income families the principles of the neonate science of nutrition and in particular what Pember Reeves and her fellow high-society socialist women called ‘the gospel of porridge’.

Porridge, they reasoned, is cheaper than a breakfast of margarine and toast, and far more nutritious. Their mission therefore, as well as documenting the flawed diets of those families, was to initiate them to the simple practice of preparing this cornerstone meal. However – and this is what makes Pember Reeves a better human than Jamie Oliver – what the book ends up recounting is quite a different story from the one the author expected to tell. Her conclusion is this: the women of Lambeth managed as well as anyone could, better than Pember Reeves – still armed with science but deprived of her income – would have herself. And this goes for the porridge too, which would have taken far too long to make, and even if the women somehow had had the time, they lacked a good enough pot to ensure it wouldn’t burn, and even if somehow they had had the time and a good enough pot, they couldn’t afford the cream or milk to make it palatable to the husband and the children.

It is quite possible that a sugar tax would work, by a very limited definition of working, but I wish we could tax paternalism instead. I wish we could tax the logic that says that if the poor suffer poor health, it’s because of poor habits. Perhaps, like Pember Reeves, some people need to be made to see. To be made to survive on little money and less time, not for a week – as in a Survivor-style holiday – but for a year or a decade. Then they might grasp that the choice afforded to us by market capitalism is false, an absurdity, like asking for a medium Frozen Coke when the large one also costs one dollar and one dollar is all you have.

Originally published at Overland