Sugar and vice

We often see articles on this blog explaining why a sugar tax will never work. Sugar is not like tobacco. Sugar is in just about everything we eat, and even if it can be avoided, it can never be taken away completely. Most of the arguments in favour of a sugar tax are aimed at taxing sugary drinks, with the intention of reducing obesity. But what do you do about fat people who never drink soft drinks? There is no automatic connection between sugary drinks and overweight people. And why should thin people pay the price? If they are not overweight, then they should not have to pay a sugar tax for drinking what they like.

One of the biggest problems is that there is so much sugar in things we eat that we don’t even know about most of it. Two years ago, I read that Dolmio had admitted that, to avoid sugar, their sauces should be eaten only once a week. I was horrified by this because I simply do not believe that a tasty pasta sauce needs a lot of sugar. Now I always check the label if I buy any form of pasta sauce.

But this article made me laugh. And it shows why a sugar tax will never work, in the same way, that tobacco taxes are not working anymore either.

The US city Philadelphia introduced a tax on sugar. A black market in soft drinks followed.

Oh, spare me. Really?

A crate of Pepsi is wedged up against an arm rest between the front seat and the back.

Underneath is a box of Mountain Dew, then more Pepsi shoved underneath a seat.

This, claims union man Danny Grace, is evidence of Philadelphia’s black market for sugary beverages.

A sandwich and a soda is an institution in Philadelphia, much like the famed Philly cheese steak, “but now the soda costs more than the sandwich”.

He produces more photos – white vans, number plates, crates of Coke bottles, an orange drink called Sunkist, and a man in a white shirt with a piece of paper in his hand, standing next to crates of Coke and Red Bull.

You know the world has gone crazy when there is a black market in products that most of us consider completely normal and, for the most part, harmless. It seems now that, in Philadelphia, cocaine is easier and cheaper to get than Coca Cola.

Unregistered drivers are taking white vans to untaxed suppliers – such as Walmart – outside the city and buying in bulk, then selling the products to retailers in the city for cash, Grace says.

“We know they’re coming outta Maryland. We know they’re coming outta Virginia. We think they’re coming outta New York.”

That hurts his members even more because “our guys are losing that revenue also”.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney acknowledges the black market exists, but says the vast majority of affected taxpayers play by the rules.

Oh, whatever. Things never change. Tell people they can’t have something, and watch them go get it!

Merchants who play by the rules display the amount of tax on a product on the receipt.

“Those who are not coming into compliance are receiving fines,” Kenney says.

“Repeated non-compliance could result in the closure of the business.”

Here we go again. Punish the small business owner, who is just trying to make a living. It is just like our dairy owners who are being beaten and robbed for cigarettes, all because of very poor Government policy.

The problem of obesity is not simple, and it will never be solved by taxing sugary drinks. And it is unfair to penalise the drinks’ suppliers, seeing that they offer a huge range of sugar-free drinks, but we still live in a free society (or so we are told.) No one can force a fat person to drink a sugar-free drink. So instead we punish the drinks suppliers, who offer a huge range.

Yeah, OK. Let us not get all silly over Coca Cola and Pepsi. But my sympathy lies, as always, with the small retailer: the coffee shop that has a fridge, the local dairy that sells drinks. The obesity problem is not their fault, but they are being made to pay for it and it just isn’t right.

I know lots of thin people who drink the sugary versions of soft drinks. I know overweight people who wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. It is too easy to point at one product and say, ‘Let’s Tax This.’ But it will make no difference to the levels of obesity, either here or overseas.


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Accountant. Boring. Loves tax. Needs to get out more. Loves the environment, but hates the Greens. Has been called a dinosaur. Wears it with pride.

To read my previous articles click on my name in blue.