Let’s stop pretending that unhealthy, unjust food systems can be solved by a tax on the consumer.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan said to the United States: “We’ve let government take away many things we once considered were really ours to do.”
Globally, people have inadvertently bought into this logic of “personal responsibility,” reasoning that a tax on sugar will curb consumer demand and compel people to choose healthier options.
While data support the fact that taxes affect consumer choice, specifically the power of taxes on cigarettes and sugary drinks to dissuade consumption, this logic is ultimately flawed. It ignores the institutions, policies and ideologies that create unjust, unhealthy food systems in the first place.
When this chain of causality is ignored, we begin to create policies that fund the businesses that surround what we’d like to get rid of.
We put the burden on the victim. And we alleviate our sense of urgency — so we do not actually address the root problems to make real progress.
Sugar and chronic disease
Sugar taxes at the point of consumption have appeared globally, from Mexico to the U.K., and are currently being debated in Canada and Australia.
A 2016 report from the World Health Organization claims that a 20 per cent tax will reduce consumption of sugar. And that this will decrease the number of chronic diseases — such as diabetes and heart disease — directly linked to sugar consumption.
True, chronic diseases directly attributable to diet have increased dramatically. One of the most striking examples is that of the Pima Native Americans who have acquired diabetes, heart disease and obesity at an exponential rate beginning with the introduction of a western diet (namely, one laden with sugar and salt). In a 2013 analysis published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the authors state that as global intake of sugar-sweetened beverages has increased, so too has obesity.
The WHO’s recommendation is based upon extensive biological, anthropological, medical and nutritional data.
It seems logical. Given the devastating effects of sugar consumption, would it not be beneficial to curb consumption? Given the urgent need to transform our diets, wouldn’t a tax on sugar, similar to a cigarette tax, help?
My answer: A resounding “no.”
The sugar tax is a bad idea
A sugar tax supports a range of enterprises surrounding sugar consumption and ignores the real problem: Sugar production and distribution.
In Seattle, businesses are expanding due to this new revenue. The City of Seattle estimates nearly US$15 million in revenue in the first year of the tax alone.
The revenue will be used for education and nutritional assistance. Education funding includes college tuition, early childhood education, K-12 education and mentorship programs. Nutritional assistance funding includes food stamp expansion, food stipends and nutritional education.
Some of these business thrive off the very object they seek to dismantle. They persist only as long as there is too much sugar consumption.
With money, jobs, buildings and infrastructure contingent on chronic illness, is there really any motivation for ending chronic illness?
While certainly education and supplemental nutrition assistance benefit society, they too come at a cost.
First, when we tax sugar, we put the burden on people who are already burdened. All we are doing is continuing to make food more expensive.
While chronic diseases related to sugar like heart disease, obesity and diabetes affect all of society, they disproportionately affect the poor. The sugar tax is another round of policies that “blame the victim” rather than uprooting the systems that cause these chronic diseases.
Second, putting a policy into place satiates our need to address the real problem — so the real problem continues.
To draw an analogy, sociologist Janet Poppendieck has persuasively argued that when we as a society fund food banks and soup kitchens, we feel like we have done our part which, in turn, causes us to cease doing more to address the real source of hunger.
We cease asking questions of causality and we cease doing the hard work of addressing the core problems.
A use for surplus corn
The root of the problem is not sugar consumption but production and distribution.
When food systems shift, so do our diets. An increase in chronic disease started when we began to produce cheap processed foods, such as sugary and fatty foods with little nutritional value.
We can look at the history of farm policy and subsidies and its association with a rise in chronic disease. For example, when corn became profitable, we grew more of it. When we had too much of it, we found more uses for it and more markets to glut with it.
For the purposes of the sugar tax, it is easy to trace the link between the overproduction of corn and its expansion into other markets as we transformed it into high-fructose corn syrup. All of that surplus corn had to go somewhere to be profitable, so food scientists invented a range of products — from paint to taco shells — in which it could be used.
As we produced more and more corn due to subsidies, as we opened up new markets by transforming surplus corn into these products, and as we distributed those new products cheaply, sugar consumption rose.
And corn production is just one example. The sugar industry in both the U.S. and Canada has effectively lobbied for its products to be kept out of the eye of organizations such as the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), which should reasonably classify sugar as harmful, and successfully acquired its continued expansion into consumer markets both domestically and abroad.
Within a context of increasing poverty and tightening household budgets due to insufficient job opportunities, cheap sugary products are consumed even more readily.
Tax the producers
Given the clear source and scope of the problem, why are we expanding the business of disease rather than eradicating it at its root? Why are we taxing already burdened consumers?
This tax emerges out of an ideology — one that asserts people are responsible for their own choices and if they cannot make the choice for themselves, then we will help them make it.
What we should be doing is changing farm policy and redirecting subsidies so that healthy, whole foods become more affordable and processed foods less affordable.
And if nothing else, let’s place a tax on those producing and distributing these products.
Unfortunately, there is already a huge industry complex built around making cheap processed foods out of sugar, and those businesses would prefer to externalize costs on to consumers rather than shoulder the burden themselves.