Does a sugar tax work?

June 17th, 2014 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Miek Yardley writes at Stuff:

Interestingly, one of the first governments in the world to impose a tax on soda drinks was the State of Arkansas, in 1992, just as Governor Clinton was packing his bags for the White House.

Two button-busting decades on, has the tax helped turn the tide on obesity in Arkansas?

No, the state’s obesity rate has doubled to 34.5 per cent, the third highest in the United States.

A tax would have to be at massively high levels to significantly change consumer behaviour.  The history of such taxes tends to be they just raise revenue for the Government, but have little impact on consumption. The exception is tobacco – but as I said, the tax has to be at a massively high level – which tobacco excise tax is.

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36 Responses to “Does a sugar tax work?”

  1. dime (9,805 comments) says:

    Even if it did “work” id be against it

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  2. Nigel Kearney (971 comments) says:

    This whole problem has such a simple solution: make obese people pay their own health costs, at least until their assets are exhausted.

    It creates a strong incentive to remain at a healthy weight without affecting people who like sugary and fatty foods but get enough exercise to compensate. The cost of implementation is also much less than a tax on food. It’s very close to a perfect solution, unless of course there is an ulterior motive for the tax that has nothing to do with reducing obesity.

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  3. mjw (391 comments) says:

    Public health thinking often strikes me as confused. Sugar is a classic example. There is a huge difference between different types of sugars yet they are all labelled ‘bad’, presumably because the public can’t be trusted to understand the subtleties of cane sugar versus corn syrup. Public health advocates should read John Stuart Mill so they understand the dangers that distorting or suppressing information entails.

    What is worse is that public health interventions are often proposed without the usual standard of a double blind clinical trial, used elsewhere in medicine. The result? Recommendations such as eat fewer eggs (now abandoned) and cut out salt (discredited). Or the healthy food pyramid … has anybody seen that around lately?

    Lets see evidence that meets the usual medical standard of multiple double blind clinical trials, combined in a meta-analysis. Only then should we seriously consider these kinds of public health recommendations.

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  4. Huevon (217 comments) says:

    Funny, this makes me want to eat a Mars bar.

    Shaming is the only tactic that will really work. We need public health ads on TV a la smoking and drink driving – I mean graphic, so bad that people reel away in disgust at the shocking messes that fatties end up in later in life (ie. post age 25).

    And any man who comments positively on those weekly fat acceptance articles in the Stuff Lifestyle section about how lardass women are “beautiful inside” and “shouldn’t be judged by society’s standards” needs to have his balls lopped off pronto.

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  5. jaba (2,120 comments) says:

    if the aim is to increase the tax take then it works really well .. just another crap tax

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  6. thor42 (971 comments) says:

    Pure socialist thinking – “taxes solve everything. Government solves everything.”

    For goodness sake, get government out of our lives. No more “social engineering”. If people want to be fat and/or eat sweet stuff, the government should LET them instead of interfering like an annoying overbearing aunt.

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  7. Dom Knots (155 comments) says:

    I bet Gerry Brownlee and Paula Benefit slosh away a few slabs of Sprite a day. It’ll take a lot of surgery to exhaust their assets, Nigel.

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  8. Judith (8,534 comments) says:

    @ Nigel Kearney (792 comments) says:
    June 17th, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    So do we also make people that take part in dangerous activities pay their health costs?

    What about people who spend too much time standing in the types of work and activities they chose and end up with back problems or leg problems, and then what about people who spend too much time watching TV and although they aren’t obese they have health related problems from not getting enough exercise. Then there are those who don’t wear face masks in public, and get the flu through their lack of caution, do we make them pay their own health costs?

    Where do we draw the line on ‘own responsibility’?

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  9. Manolo (13,518 comments) says:

    It would be another attack on freedom of choice and personal responsibility.

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  10. Judith (8,534 comments) says:

    @ Manolo (12,997 comments) says:
    June 17th, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    The problem with that argument is that it is not personal responsibility when people develop diabetes etc from consuming too much sugar, and their health bill exceeds their contribution and they start dipping into what I and you pay.

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  11. Nigel Kearney (971 comments) says:

    Judith, we don’t draw the line anywhere. We have to disregard some factors because we can’t detect or measure them. But we can easily measure BMI. Imposing a charge for injuries resulting from dangerous activities would be fine as well.

    A health charge for the obese is functionally identical to a tax on sugar or fat, except that people who exercise and maintain a healthy weight are exempt, and it’s cheaper to administer.

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  12. Ed Snack (1,839 comments) says:

    I reckon that the single largest contributor to modern obesity is the Government (and Medical Science professionals) promoted “Food Pyramid” with “eat lots of carbohydrates” as its key message. I reckon we should take the cost of obesity out of the personal wealth and income of those who proposed and promoted that piece of shite.

    It is worth remembering that these campaigns against obesity or whatever the complaint du jour is are not scientific but instead purely intended as political theatre. they are a signalling process, designed to show that one “cares”. As such, the actual results are unimportant, even if they exacerbate the problem that is unimportant as the key element is the signal: “I CARE”. The secondary purpose to assert power, to dominate and show that you can make others pay for your foibles.

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  13. Lance (2,629 comments) says:

    I don’t often agree with Judith (actually probably never up till now) but she is right.
    Trying to make obese people pay for their own health care is about as impractical as Labour/Greens idiotic no GST on veges + fruit.

    So what is an obesity related illness, who decides, is a brain tumor cause by obesity or not, should there be inquisitional panels to label what is and what isn’t… blaa blaa blaa?

    Stupid.

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  14. burt (8,206 comments) says:

    Obesity is only a problem because we choose to fully socialise heath costs. The ‘fat person cost’ is by government choice a problem to non fat people… so the solution is to make non fat people pay more tax …. because … we dare not think of changing the full socialisation of health costs… Socialist band-aid…… that’s all this is.

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  15. Judith (8,534 comments) says:

    @ Nigel Kearney (793 comments) says:
    June 17th, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    Then what about something like this – the govt pays for one free doctors visit a year, where a health test is performed. It doesn’t have to be a ridiculously stringent one, but rather something where BMI etc is checked. Should a person ‘pass’ that test they receive the incentive of a tax rebate. If they don’t have the test (their choice) they don’t get the rebate.

    Annual doctors visits would also assist in preempting any problems that may be brewing, and so reduce health costs further down the line, in many issues, not just obesity.

    Whatever we do, we simply cannot afford the rising health costs of our aging population. As time passes, our health services will get harder and harder to access – the time to act is now.

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  16. RRM (9,786 comments) says:

    But we can easily measure BMI. Imposing a charge for injuries resulting from dangerous activities would be fine as well.

    And BMI is a completely and utterly pointless sack of shit in this context.

    Some of the fittest, healthiest, best-looking people I know have been told they are “obese” according to BMI.

    BMI is NO basis for any assessment or classification of people of the kind you are talking about.

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  17. Lance (2,629 comments) says:

    @Judith
    Excessive blood sugar through Diabetes is a symptom, not a cause. Usually the cause is heredity exacerbated by high fat and low exercise.

    Our ancestors didn’t used to eat much sugars/ carbs but lots of meat and veges and were active most of the day, that should be a clue.

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  18. Nuwanda (83 comments) says:

    DPF:

    “A tax would have to be at massively high levels to significantly change consumer behaviour. The history of such taxes tends to be they just raise revenue for the Government, but have little impact on consumption. The exception is tobacco – but as I said, the tax has to be at a massively high level – which tobacco excise tax is.”

    So, then it would work? Just make it really high on soft drinks and similar products.

    I’m against it but the problem with the likes of DPF’s comment is that once you concede that it’s legitimate for the state to modify behaviour through taxes, you’ve lost the argument. Who cares if it has to be high since you’ve already conceded that a high tax would modify behavior, just like the tobacco tax.

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  19. Judith (8,534 comments) says:

    @ burt (7,521 comments) says:
    June 17th, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    I agree, but the population would never go for drastic change to pay your own health costs – so no matter what happens, we are stuck with finding a solution where people take some responsibility for their health – be it from what they eat, or what they choose to do with their time. The emphasis should be on remaining as healthy and therefore productive as possible.

    Currently people tend not to get health advice, until there is a problem – that attitude costs us. The vast majority of health related problems can be fixed for a fraction of the price, if they are detected early enough.

    IF the government must be responsible for health, then the focus should be on maintaining a healthy population, not on repairing an ill one.

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  20. RRM (9,786 comments) says:

    Oh and I don’t like the precedent that “we’re not going to treat that because it’s your own fault you’re fat” sets.

    Because if that, then what’s next?

    “We’re not going to cut you out of the wreck of your 2004 Barina because that car only scored 2 ANCAP stars out of 5, you could have chosen a newer and better car, but you didn’t, so it’s your own stupid fault that piece of bridge railing is sticking through your chest. Bye…”

    Public healthcare should NOT be a vehicle for people’s personal value judgements and deciding ad-hoc who’s worth rescuing and who dies based on subjective opinions about how meritorious people are.

    Either we should take care of the sick, like the stone-aged tribes in the jungle do; or we should not, as wild animals don’t. It’s pretty hard to find an in-between stance that works.

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  21. Judith (8,534 comments) says:

    @ Lance (2,353 comments) says:
    June 17th, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    I totally agree (as I hypocritically sit on my butt typing at a computer).

    When it took all day to do the washing and prepare the meals, there wasn’t time for sitting down. Meals took too long to cook, so one tended not to eat more than was necessary each day.

    We have evolved socially but not physically. Our lifestyle does not maintain a healthy physiology in today’s human. The results are not just showing in humans, our domestic animals are also suffering from similar health complaints as they accompany us in our activities (or lack of them).

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  22. Judith (8,534 comments) says:

    Either we should take care of the sick, like the stone-aged tribes in the jungle do; or we should not, as wild animals don’t. It’s pretty hard to find an in-between stance that works.

    Yes, we should take care of the sick, but our emphasis should be on preventing them from getting sick in the first place. Surely it is more caring to ensure the ones you love and are responsible for, remain healthy?

    If we give people incentives to maintain a reasonable level of fitness (appropriate to their age) then we will have less sick people to care for. There will always be those that don’t or won’t bother – and we will always have to pay for their care – however, they will not have received the incentives that those of us who do bother, receive.

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  23. burt (8,206 comments) says:

    Judith

    IF the government must be responsible for health, then the focus should be on maintaining a healthy population, not on repairing an ill one.

    Circa 2002 Labour introduced ‘Primary health care’ initiatives which were going to revolutionise health care placing a bigger emphasis on prevention rather than cure. The decline in beds in the new Wellington Hospital was justified on the grounds that primary health care initiatives would reduce demand for beds over time.

    Socialists talk about it – spend our money on committees and feel good sound bite policies – then they take our cash from us, restrict our choices in everything and tell us they are looking after us – meanwhile nothing really changes.

    How do you plan to make people take responsibility for their own health without financial penalties for the shape they are in. Taxing everyone will not solve the behavious of the few.

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  24. burt (8,206 comments) says:

    Breaking news; Gangs now selling cheap imported soft drinks to kids ….. It’s obvious we need more police cracking down on these criminals selling a substance that was previously untaxed….

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  25. Judith (8,534 comments) says:

    @ burt (7,523 comments) says:
    June 17th, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    As I said above Burt – you don’t tax. You offer everyone one free doctors visit a year. If they pass a ‘reasonable’ health test, they receive a tax rebate – if they don’t go, or they are extremely unhealthy, they don’t get the rebate. Of course the test would be relevant to age etc.

    This serves two purposes – one, it provides incentives to be reasonably healthy (I mean an average – not some ridiculous standard). And it allows potential health issues to be detected early, when they are still treatable at a reduced cost, to when they become chronic, and cost plenty. Advice can be given, and if maintained, then the person can be sure of passing the next years check.

    People respond much better (even adults) to being offered incentives.

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  26. burt (8,206 comments) says:

    Judith

    The unintended consequence of that is people will not go to doctors.

    Private medical insurance (tax deductible of course) would easily sort this out. We fully accept a bad driving record pumps up our insurance costs – and the main reason for this is insurance companies don’t pretend that one size fits all. Socialism does and that is a big factor in why it always fails. You are proposing another one size fits all solution.

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  27. Jimmy Russell (2 comments) says:

    Why do people assume that nutritionists know how to make good public policy. Tax means nothing for an innate desire for simple carbs. There are so many other factors which contribute to obesity that blaming drinks or sugar is beyond lazy and will do nothing. Why is there no discussion of replacing the unintelligible kilojoule system to the calorie system where people can have a general understanding on how much energy they are consuming and how it will effect them.

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  28. Nigel Kearney (971 comments) says:

    Oh and I don’t like the precedent that “we’re not going to treat that because it’s your own fault you’re fat” sets.

    RRM, that’s just a strawman. Nobody in this thread has suggested people would not get treated because they are fat. It is about who pays and how much. One way of paying is through taxes on food. Another way is to make obese people pay a share of their health costs. The second way is better targeted at the people causing the problem.

    It doesn’t have to be BMI and the costs don’t have to kick in at the current level that is regarded as obese. But many of the health issues due to increased weight occur regardless of whether that weight is muscle or fat. So the fact that a person is fit and looks good shouldn’t be decisive either.

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  29. Judith (8,534 comments) says:

    burt (7,525 comments) says:
    June 17th, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    The unintended consequence of that is people will not go to doctors.

    I beg to differ. If the doctors visit was free, and they get a tax rebate for going, then many people would take the opportunity. Sure those that simply do not want to be healthy wouldn’t, but then what they aren’t given in a tax rebate, can contribute to their health costs. Those that do go and have health problems preempted, would lesson the strain on existing health services.

    The fact is, yes, private medical insurance is the key – but sadly any party that suggests it, would not get elected. NZers are not ready to accept the reality.

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  30. dime (9,805 comments) says:

    “This whole problem has such a simple solution: make obese people pay their own health costs, at least until their assets are exhausted.”

    “Judith, we don’t draw the line anywhere. We have to disregard some factors because we can’t detect or measure them. But we can easily measure BMI. Imposing a charge for injuries resulting from dangerous activities would be fine as well.”

    lmao simple?

    what if fatty pays 50k a year in PAYE already? he is one of the few people who puts in more than he takes ( a hero in my eyes, a rich c*nt in most kiwis eyes).

    does he still have to pay for all his health too? cause the comrades have decided hes a baddie?

    BMI – poor richie mccaw :( obese and paying for all his health costs.

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  31. burt (8,206 comments) says:

    Judith

    I beg to differ. If the doctors visit was free, and they get a tax rebate for going

    Yes, I too can see people who have got fatter than last year lining up to be told off by their doctor and informed that they don’t qualify for the get healthy incentive. FFS – they have already opted out of looking after themselves and there is no cost, they miss out on a potential benefit but lets face it – being fat makes you miss out on all sorts of benefits.

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  32. burt (8,206 comments) says:

    dime

    You seem to have forgotten this is a socialist country and we need a one size fits all solution. BMI is administratively efficient and so it shall be used. Please, don’t waste any more time pointing out the failings of such a simple measure – it is both simple to calculate and systems based on it will be easy to administer. Ease of administration is a key concern, effectiveness and fit for purpose – that’s not a concern for socialism.

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  33. Rich Prick (1,669 comments) says:

    The sugar tax debate annoys me. Sugar (carbohydrate to be precise) is only a problem if it is allowed to metabolise to fat. If those calling for a sugar tax are so convinced that it’s a winning idea, how about a sloth tax as well? Of course having neither is better, but I guarantee the health-fascists will never call for the latter, it’s not a funding nor a vote winner.

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  34. ross411 (597 comments) says:

    Lance (2,353 comments) says:
    June 17th, 2014 at 1:00 pm
    So what is an obesity related illness, who decides, is a brain tumor cause by obesity or not, should there be inquisitional panels to label what is and what isn’t… blaa blaa blaa?

    You are making an appeal to extremes. A brain tumor is a very serious illness that is much more likely to have no obvious cause by obesity. There are illnesses however, which can directly be linked to obesity, or which are made much more likely because of obesity.

    In much the same way as people who smoked choose to smoke, and could be made to bear the cost for their choice rather than putting it on the rest of us — so could obese people be made to bear the cost for their choice. It’s not fascism — it’s bettering society through encouraging personal responsibility.

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  35. ross411 (597 comments) says:

    dime (9,090 comments) says:
    what if fatty pays 50k a year in PAYE already? he is one of the few people who puts in more than he takes ( a hero in my eyes, a rich c*nt in most kiwis eyes).

    does he still have to pay for all his health too? cause the comrades have decided hes a baddie?

    Fatty isn’t paying PAYE to cover future health costs. He’s paying it because the government is forcing him to, and it just happens to cover their spending on whatever. If I could designate my PAYE going to a retirement fund or health fund for my personal future, rather than government spending.. well, clearly that’s ridiculous.

    Does fatty or smoky, or unprotected sexy bear any responsibility for their actions? Or are you happy to pay higher taxes so that we can all be free to live a life of gluttony and sloth?

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  36. Left Right and Centre (2,950 comments) says:

    When my weight was nearing ‘obesity’ level at maybe 95-100kg range at 183cm in 2006 – my record running time was 17’46” for 4.6kms – about 15km/h. And 66% of my 4.6km times that year were ‘sub 20s’ – under 20 mins.

    So – at 100kg – that would be obese – just. It’s at the margin. I would say I was very much in the minority of people my weight at that time.

    BMI was always intended to be used to measure entire populations and very large samples.

    And no – it doesn’t cover individuals. It doesn’t measure body composition. It was never designed for bodybuilders. And Richie McCaw is hardly a long way into the so-called obese range anyway. If he weighed 110kg – 10kg at most into ‘obesity’ inverted commas in his case – sure. There’s technically obese and then there’s ‘would you look at that sumo-sized four chin stay-puft bloated self-inflicted physical-disablemunted (oh, it’s a word) retard scoffaholic greedy waddling unfit sickly looking 175kg mini-planet sucking small food items towards it by its own gravity alone’?

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