Saturday

17th Nov 2018

Opinion

The 'nanny state' in consumer health needs to go

  • A Danish 'fat tax' was repealed after just 15 months

The Irish government recently decided to levy a so-called 'soda tax' on sugary drinks. Officials are introducing this measure as a way of tackling obesity, which many people consider as having run rampant in Europe for a while now.

'54,000 obese school children' was the slogan by which Irish politicians lobbied for the new tax. Quite evidently, the implication is all those who disagree with the measure must not be concerned about the children - despite the possibility that child obesity might not be stopped by an increase in the price of a Coke, but that it has far-reaching roots that need to be sorted out first.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

The Irish measure is aligned with the recent French increase on their existing tax on soda. The then president Nicolas Sarkozy had introduced the measure, which then continued to be exploited for revenue increases. The initial tax constituted €7.53 on 100 litres of soda, or 2.51 cents for a can of 33 centilitres.

One might suggest that this is steeped in irony, considering that while part of the European Union's common agricultural policy, France is also subsidising sugar. Being asked to pay twice, once for the subsidisation of sugar, and then its consumption, is probably hard to swallow for the French consumer.

Just looking at the Danish 'fat tax' will teach us a lot about the disastrous nature of these so-called 'sin taxes'. Denmark introduced a special fat tax on consumption goods, only to repeal the bill (with the same majority) some 15 months later.

Not only was the tax an additional burden on people with low incomes, it also incentivised consumers to downgrade to cheaper products in the supermarket (while maintaining their consumption of fats), leading to no impact on health and minor impact on consumption overall.

However, the question really isn't on sin taxes at all anymore. We can look at policy failures on a case-by-case basis as much as we like, but we won't put a halt to the 'nanny state' if we don't address the underlying principle of its premise.

The premise of this patronising politics is this: that the consumer is basically too inept to make decisions about his or her own life. Blinded by the irrationality of his own mind and instinct-lead urges, it can only be the benevolence of modern-day public policy that can lift him out of his distress. That, at least, seems to be the assumption of today's regulators.

The truth, however, is of a very different kind. Despite not being particularly vocal about their opposition to sin taxes, consumers speak clearly when it comes to their market decisions. In the case of the Danish fat tax, we've seen consumers downgrade their quality standards; something that is likely to happen in the case of soda as well.

An even more far-reaching example of market decisions in spite of sin taxes is tobacco, where increasing taxes have inspired e-cigarettes, the significant comeback of rolling tobacco and has simultaneously propped up a black market which makes every fifth cigarette in France one which originates from illicit trade. The total number of smokers, however, has only marginally decreased.

People are sinners...

People want to smoke, eat fatty foods and drink soda, and politicians need to start to come to grips with it. These are all products we should consume in moderation and with transparent information about its health concerns, but we should stop criticising the innate desire to have them in the first place.

We have created a public policy monster that lurks out from the backroom once we eye the cookie jar, when we should actually be completely unapologetic about the fact that we like candy, we lust after soda and that we love chocolate.

We may very well debate an EU directive on soda taxation by 2020, but considering the ineffectiveness of the measure, it is all just political virtue-signalling echoing into the void of well-intentioned, yet ill-advised laws.

Let us let consumers choose for themselves instead.

Bill Wirtz is a policy analyst for the Consumer Choice Center, a lobby group in Brussels

Focus

Warning over Europe's sugar-guzzling habits

Europeans get through a huge amount of sugary drinks, causing serious risks to their health, a study backed by anti-obesity campaigners suggests. But southern Europe has seen a marked decline in consumption.

EU smashes 40 years of sugar protectionism

EU sugar prices will fall by 36 percent over the next four years under a surprise sugar deal reached by European agriculture ministers on Thursday.

US steps in to clean up Cyprus

Cyprus has overlooked undertakings on bank probity made to the EU in the context of the 2013 bailout - but it might prove harder to get the US off its back.

News in Brief

  1. US warns EU banks and firms against trading with Iran
  2. Merkel urged Romania not to move embassy to Jerusalem
  3. Protesters call for Czech leader to step down
  4. Former German chancellor labelled 'enemy' of Ukraine
  5. French lead opposition to Brexit deal on fisheries
  6. Private accounts of Danske Bank employees investigated
  7. UK's May defends Brexit deal to MPs, after ministers resign
  8. Brexit MP calls for 'no confidence' vote on May

Why 'Spitzenkandidat' is probably here to stay

The power of the parliament to 'appoint' the president of the EU Commission is new, highly-contested - and not universally understood. In fact, even some of the lead candidates to replace Jean-Claude Juncker are against it.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  5. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  6. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  7. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  8. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  9. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  10. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  12. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs

Latest News

  1. Brexit dominates EU affairs This WEEK
  2. How the EU commission got tunnel vision on self-driving cars
  3. No-confidence calls against May put Brexit deal in doubt
  4. Key points of the Brexit deal (if it ever comes into effect)
  5. Romania heaps scorn on 'revolting' EU criticism
  6. US steps in to clean up Cyprus
  7. 'Decisive progress' on Brexit as British cabinet backs deal
  8. Asylum for Macedonia's ex-PM puts Orban on spot

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  3. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  5. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  9. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  10. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us