After Boris Johnson fell dangerously ill with Coronavirus, it was widely reported that he’d had a Damascene conversion on sin taxes.
Although he’s well known for his libertarian instincts, he told Times Radio that it was “absolutely true” he’d shifted his thinking on the obesity epidemic, regretting that in some of his “embarrassing former articles” he had “taken a sort of very libertarian stance”.
This led many to believe he might now back sugar taxes. However, today The Sun reports that Johnson has no plans to use them.
While this news will no doubt please libertarians around the country, it still seems that the Prime Minister will take radical action to tackle the crisis, with Number 10 reportedly considering calorie counts on all restaurant and takeaway menus, increasing bariatric surgery, as well as questioning whether to ban buy-one–get-one-free deals on junk food, as part of a war against obesity.
Many of these moves aren’t exactly “people pleasing”, but as with much of the Coronavirus, the Government has had to become increasingly interventionist, particularly due to the prospect of a second wave.
As overweight people are at increased risk of death and serious ill-health from the virus; with the UK currently having the second highest obesity rate in Europe, practical considerations have overridden philosophical ones.
Given that the Government is reportedly planning fairly dramatic steps, what people will wonder, however, is why not go for broke and ramp up sugar tax too (if The Sun story is correct). Not least because there’s the economic aspect of the Coronavirus crisis to manage, too, with the Government needing to raise taxes fast.
Some of the wariness around sugar taxes might be due to muddled scientific evidence. Since the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) was introduced in 2018, there have been fairly conflicting conclusions over whether it works – in the UK and elsewhere.
There’s also the libertarian resistance the Government receives when it considers sin taxes. Critics object on the ground that it reduces people’s right to choose what they want to consume, and impacts people on low incomes – something which Johnson is said to be keen to avoid.
Whatever the case, it seems to me that the Conservatives cannot shy away any more from being bolder in nudging consumer behaviour – when it comes to the obesity crisis.
Indeed, what will stifle the Conservatives’ ability to make any decent progress on fighting the obesity crisis is a desire to be “freedom fighters” when it comes to consumption. Coronavirus has rather crushed the romanticism of this idea – and even before then it was unrealistic.
The idea of personal responsibility when it comes to food has always been overly idealistic, and has been challenged by science quite considerably over the last few years, which increasingly shows that some people struggle more than others in consumption habits.
Some of this is outlined by Tom Chivers for UnHerd; the piece outlines how heritability can influence what people want to drink and eat. Obesity has a heritability of 70 to 80 per cent, so this is why some find it much harder than others to cope in a society where food is advertised everywhere.
Far from the sugar tax being oppressive, our society has been pushy in the opposite direction to the one libertarians object to; it nudges people towards overeating and drinking, with two-for-one cocktail deals, meal deals and other offers always prominently positioned out and about.
It’s this encouragement factor that’s the problem, and it could be reversed with quite minimal tactics; the positioning of food in shops (healthier snacks near the counter), and other subtle techniques. The Government is also right to also consider steps such as gastric bands, which seem dramatic – but can improve people’s quality of life and the coping ability of the NHS in enormous ways.
On the economic recovery, Rishi Sunak recently said that we needed to be “creative” in how we spur growth, before he introduced his “Eat Out to Help Out Plan”. And this is the attitude that Johnson should take to solving this health crisis, although it will test his philosophical principles as much as the lockdown.