Public Health England’s long-awaited report on sugar was published yesterday. I say ‘long awaited’ but hardly anybody had heard of it until last Monday when Sarah Wollaston created a storm in a teacup by claiming it had been suppressed by the government. As Wollaston must have known, and as the media has gleefully reported this week, it included a tax on sugar among its recommendations.
Many people seem to have misunderstood the purpose of the Public Health England report. It was not intended to be a cost-benefit analysis of anti-obesity policies. It was focused entirely on how sugar consumption could be reduced at the population level. Since that was its only aim, it is not surprising that a sugar tax was suggested as a possibility — albeit only the fourth best possibility, in the view of its authors.
If I had been forced to write a report about how the consumption of sugar — or any other product — could be reduced, I would have mentioned taxation as well. The law of demand, arguably the most basic concept in economics, is an obvious place to start. Nobody has ever denied that higher prices tend to lead to less consumption. The argument against a sugar tax is not that it would have no effect on demand, but that the effect would be trivial, the impact on obesity would be virtually non-existent and the impact on consumers would be negative and regressive.
The authors of the Public Health England report did not weigh up the pros and the cons of a sugar tax because that is not what they were charged with doing. They did not need to look at the consequences, except those related to consumption. They did not even ask whether less sugar consumption would lead to less obesity, they simply assumed that it would. In one of the Annexes to the report, they explicitly state that they had ‘very little insight’ into a host of issues, including the ‘difference in short- and long-term effects, the extent and nature of a regressive (and progressive) effect and an understanding of compensatory behaviours and their impact on individual and population level dietary intake and nutritional quality overall’ — in other words, all the issues you’d need to look at to make a balanced judgment.
A report that recommends a sugar tax without looking at the impact on dietary intake or the economic impact on the poor is a one-sided effort, to say the least. If you take a rose-tinted view of the benefits and ignore the costs, any policy will seem attractive. Fortunately, politicians have so far taken a broader view and have rejected the idea of a sugar tax. Let’s hope they hold their nerve.
It is worth asking why Public Health England is so insistent on reducing our sugar consumption in the first place. On page 27, we get this slightly unnerving explanation:
‘What we eat now is very different to what we ate 30 or 40 years ago. As a result of advances in technology, economic development and other factors the food and drinks market has evolved to provide more choice than ever before. We are constantly nudged towards buying and eating more food — our environment is filled with more food outlets (shops, restaurants, takeaways and fast food restaurants, cafes and coffee shops) and, in real terms, food is cheaper than ever before.
‘We now spend significantly less every week on our groceries — between 1957 and 2006 the proportion of our average weekly expenditure spent on food and non-alcoholic drinks has halved from 33 per cent to 15 per cent which is good for household budgets but not necessarily so good for our food choices. While none of this is anyone’s fault, it’s time to change this and influencing our overall supply of food and drink is critical so that improvements are made to what is available to us and what we actually eat.’
This tells you a great deal about the mentality of the ‘public health’ lobby. They are strangely attracted to scarcity and want. For example, they have a peculiar fetish for how Cuba made people slimmer through poverty. What we see in the paragraph above is an account of economic progress as a Bad Thing. We have ‘more choice than ever before’, we have ‘more food outlets’ and ‘food is cheaper than ever before’. Food poverty has been virtually eradicated and our grocery bill is now a small fraction of our weekly outgoings. But rather than celebrating this triumph over scarcity, Public Health England portrays it as a step backwards and asserts that ‘it’s time to change’.
‘None of this anyone’s fault’, they say, as if we might be tempted to point the finger of blame! Has it really come to this? Do we really have to feel bad about having more choice, lower prices and more disposable income?
Besides, where has all this economic progress left us? According to Public Health England, the food we eat today is ‘very different to what we ate 30 or 40 years ago’. They do not go into detail about what the differences are, but they do provide a citation to a Defra report entitled Family Food 2013 which notes that ‘energy content of food purchases has been on a downward trend since 1965’ and ‘energy intake per person declined 31 per cent between 1974 and 2013’.
If you dig around in Defra’s source material, you can see that sugar consumption has declined by 16 per cent since 1992. This is confirmed by data on the availability of sugar which shows a decline of about 20 per cent since the 1970s. It is also confirmed by the National Diet and Nutrition Survey and the Nutritional Survey of British Adults. We can argue about the exact size of the decline, but all the evidence points in the same direction. We eat less sugar today than we did in Public Health England’s shangri-la of 30 or 40 years ago.
This, of course, is contrary to popular perceptions, but every popular perception about sugar is contrary to the evidence at this time of mass hysteria.