Critical Analysis Project

More sugar tax is not the answer

In an opinion piece published on 23 October 2015, The Telegraph argued that the methods to fight obesity advocated by Public Health England are misguided. The article contains four key arguments: against reduction of advertising of high-sugar products, against the so-called “sugar tax”, in favour of individual responsibility being a key to less obesity, and in favour of more sports, rather than less unhealthy food, being another key to less obesity. Here we analyse these arguments in turn (click on the hyperlinks to see where they appear in the text).

  1. Against a reduction in the advertising of high-sugar products.
    The Telegraph argues that this proposal from Public Health England is “impractical, if not laughable”, but offers no backing for this claim, beyond pointing out that “Coco Pops monkey could be driven from the public sphere”.
  2. Against the sugar tax.
    In the next paragraph, The Telegraph turns to the sugar tax, which they claim to be Public Health England’s “most contentious” proposal. In support of their rejection of the sugar tax, they first point out that such a tax already exists: “most foods and drink are exempt from VAT, but not sweets, chocolates, sports drinks, and soft drinks – so consumers already pay more for them”. This is, however, not a strong argument against an additional sugar tax. The question is whether sugar consumption is too high at present, and whether an additional sugar tax could be a good way of reducing it. The fact that there already is a sugar tax of sorts would seem to be irrelevant.
  3. The solution to the sugar crisis lies in individual responsibility.
    In the next paragraph, The Telegraph argues that “the solution to the sugar crisis lies in individual responsibility. A possible interpretaton is that they want to claim that neither a sugar tax nor a reduction of advertising of high-sugar products is necessary, since there is an alternative solution, namely that individuals take better responsibility for their eating. No reason is given, however, to believe that individuals will take better responsibility than they have done in the past.

Another interpretation is that they The Telegraph do not want to say that individual responsibility will solve the sugar crisis, but rather that it should: people should eat more responsibly. That does not address the question of how to reduce obesity, which means that you could argue that The Telegraph fails to address the main issue here. A possible interpretation is, however, that they think that if people who fail to take individual responsibility turn obese, that is not an outcome that the government ought to prevent.

In any case, The Telegraph should have been much clearer on this point. The reader should not have to guess what they want to say in the manner we have done here.

  1. To reduce obesity, people should do more sports, rather than eat healthier.
    In the final paragraph, The Telegraph argues that consumption of unhealthy food has decreased for decades, and conclude that that cannot be the explanation for obesity. They argue that the problem is rather that people do not do enough sports: “the best way for the British to beat the flab is to hit the gym”. They do not offer sufficient evidence for this hypothesis, however. Also, this seems to be a so-called “false dichotomy”: even if it were true that Britons should do more sports, it does not follow that they should not eat healthier, and that the methods proposed by Public Health England could not help them to achieve that goal.

This particular argument suggests internal contradiction in the argument. Previously, it was argued that “the impact of charging even more for such products will be borne by the poorest”. This introduces the notion that solutions requiring consumer payment are undesirable, as they hit poor people disproportionally harder. However, doing sports and going to the gym requires both time and, more to the point of th argument, money. It is difficult not to see the premises of arguing against taxation and for gym memberships as internally contradictory.

Moving the debate forward

When arguing against the sugar tax, The Telegraph claims that the impact of such a tax would be borne by the poorest. Against this, one could argue that there are ways to counter this effect: the sugar tax could be coupled with benefit increases or tax reductions targeted at the poorest. You could argue that The Telepgrah should have met this obvious counter-argument [Jens].

Another potentially problematic argument against the sugar tax is the claim that “supporters of this tax, such as the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver see themselves as champions of a moral crusade to eliminate bad health”. This is a so-called ad hominem-argument: rather than attacking the claim (that we should have a sugar tax), they attack the person(s) making the claims. Such arguments can be valid, if they point out a feature of the person(s) making the claim that make them less trustworthy. However, it is not clear that a self-conception as “champions of a moral crusade to eliminate bad health” would constitute such a feature. The Telegraph should have provided more evidence for their implication that Oliver and others are biased in favour of measures such as sugar taxes for moralistic reasons [Peter from Newcastle].

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