Penalising those who like fizzy drinks won't fix our fat nation

Our national weight issue isn’t monocausal and penalising those who drink fizzy drinks isn’t going to make any difference

Britain will introduce a dual-band sugar tax in 2018. Several countries have already introduced such a tax with varied policies, but there is no robust evidence to show what effects these policies have on consumption and health.

 

Consequentialism is the philosophical idea that outcomes dictate morality. In other words, the consequences of an action, rather than the intent or principles behind it, are what make it good or bad.

Your gut reaction to this might be to think it’s silly. If you see a fellow shout at a barking dog, and then kick it in anger, you’ll most likely think he is committing an immoral or unethical act. What if, unwittingly, his kick propels the dog out of the path of an oncoming car? He has saved the dog’s life, but only really intended to punish it for barking. Has he committed a moral act, or an immoral one?

 It is useful to be able to identify consequentialist arguments when we encounter them, and to recognise that they are not always as straightforward as the dog example. The majority of political arguments you will hear will be consequentialist ones, rather than arguments concerned with principles. Recently, I was in the audience of the RTÉ TV show Claire Byrne Live during a segment on the Apple tax controversy. Someone in the audience made the argument that the tax wasn’t ours to collect for a variety of reasons. Whether or not that is true, another person in the audience chose to ignore that point rather than engage with it, instead suggesting that collecting the tax is the right thing to do because our services are underfunded and we need the money. This is a consequentialist argument at its core: whether or not the money is ours, collecting it is moral because the consequences of collecting it – having more public funding – would make it so.

In the 1983 referendum, which brought in the eighth amendment to the Constitution, the arguments made in favour of the amendment were mostly consequentialist ones. They are more or less the same arguments we are seeing in favour of keeping it now: abortion is wrong primarily because of the consequences that allowing access to it would bring about. Whether or not these consequences would actually come about (most of them certainly wouldn’t) is another matter. The point is that keeping the eighth amendment is moral, by this logic, because it supposedly prevents negative consequences. The fact that there isn’t really any evidence for these negative consequences is another matter.

There isn’t really any evidence to support the sugar tax our Minister for Finance will announce in October’s budget either, yet the moral justification for the tax is entirely consequentialist. The tax is good, it is suggested, because we are a fat nation. We eat too much sugar, we drink too many sugary drinks. The tax is designed to save us from ourselves, and protect our children, presumably from their own parents, who buy them or give them the means to buy fizzy drinks. The facts don’t really bear this out. Sugar taxes in other jurisdictions don’t reduce consumption, and haven’t affected obesity in the slightest.

Only about half of Irish adults drink the sugar-sweetened fizzy drinks that will be subject to this tax, and the vast majority of those don’t drink enough on average to cause obesity.

Our national weight issue isn’t monocausal, and penalising those who drink fizzy drinks isn’t going to make any difference. What it will do is unfairly punish the majority of consumers of these products – people who partake occasionally – and raise a tidy sum for the Government at the cost of adult citizens’ right to drink whatever they want. It will also make it look as if the Government is tackling obesity, without it having to funnel a cent of the funding raised by this tax into actually doing so.

 The tax is popular because the majority of us consider consequentialist arguments to be the only form of argument. We could look at this as a matter of principle. This tax infantilises us all in a vain attempt to control a few. Our children and what they consume are our responsibility, not the State’s, and there isn’t a person on this island who isn’t aware that sugar is bad for us. Michael Noonan is suggesting the State can take money out of our pockets because we don’t know what’s good for us. Where’s the principle there?

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