A bitter-sweet policy

Mark Hennessy
Insights Newsletter
21 February, 2014

Individuals should – and in most countries including New Zealand they do – ­have the right to make their own decisions about their lifestyle, such as which career path to follow, what to wear, and what to eat and drink.

A number of lifestyle choices, particularly those regarding diet and exercise, have direct effects on an individual’s physical health. And, like most other personal issues, freedom of choice naturally entails that the individual is fully responsible for their own wellbeing, as they should be.

But it seems the line between individual and state responsibility has become a bit murky for some.

Recent debate has erupted over the possible introduction of a sugar tax on sweetened beverages; a policy which is aimed at reducing the prevalence of food-related health problems including obesity, particularly among young people. This debate was spurred on by research published last week in the New Zealand Medical Journal which estimates that a 20 per cent tax on fizzy drinks would help avert or postpone about 67 deaths per year.

The idea is not new to New Zealand. After a tax on saturated fats was introduced in Denmark in 2011, there were calls for legislation here to follow suit, including a sugar tax. It took a mere 15 months for the tax to be abolished, after the undesirable side-effects for Danish businesses and the cumbersome chore of administrating the tax became all too apparent.

The argument being posited is that a tax applying exclusively to sweetened beverages would be far easier to manage than a general fat or sugar tax, and would not cause nearly as much of the unintended flow-on effects, thus making is much more economically viable. And a valid argument this may be.

However, while the intentions behind such a policy may be good and honest, one must question the message that it sends. A tax on sweetened drinks implies that the government is partly responsible for its citizens’ lifestyle choices regarding diet, and that individuals are not competent to make the choice themselves.

If people are fully informed of the health implications of consuming fizzy drinks, or any consumable for that matter, then the choice to consume should be theirs, not the state’s. Instead of the government limiting choices, individuals need to take responsibility for their own health and set an example for the younger generation to follow.

Taxing sugary drinks sets a dangerous precedent, and urges the question – where will it stop?

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