There’s fat chance a sugar tax will reduce obesity

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Cartoon by Bill Leak

MRC Executive Director Nick Cater writes in The Australian:

There was a hint of defeatism in Bob Geldof’s voice as he delivered yet another of the rants that have punctuated his journey from insolent rock star to crotchety uncle.

“I believe we are in some terrible moment,” he told delegates at a youth summit in Canada, “some great retreat from the ability to at least influence the direction of world travel.”

The world has moved on since the 1980s, when Geldof formed Band Aid to protest against the failure of capitalism. Starvation has been replaced by obesity as anti-market progressives ­ex­punge their postcolonial guilt in what was once called the Third World.

The World Health Organisation warns that sub-Saharan ­Africa is now in the grip of an obesity epidemic. At least 10 million children in the region are said to be overweight.

The world is moving from famine to feast “with terrifying speed”, WHO director-general Margaret Chan told a conference last month. She claimed the number of overweight people in the world had overtaken the number of underweight people for the first time. Countless millions in what we once called the Third World “find themselves trapped in the misery of diabetes and all its costly complications”, she said.

There is a cure for diabetes; it’s called hunger, the condition experts once told us would be rife across Asia and Africa by now.

In 1974, the Whitlam government dutifully sent its representatives to the World Food Conference in Rome to discuss forecasts that population growth would outstrip our capacity to grow food.

The world population would race towards 14 billion this century, leaving countless billions undernourished in Asia, Africa and South America. Australia signed the Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition acknowledging the “alien and colonial domination, foreign occupation, racial discrimination, apartheid and neo-colonialism” that had caused a “grave food crisis” in developing countries.

Today the same evil forces of free enterprise and free trade that brought you world starvation are being blamed for making us all too fat. Chan says the food chain is in the grip of agribusiness corporations. “The dominance and power of this industrial complex are immense,” she said. “They help explain why highly processed junk food is becoming the new global food staple.”

Africans, thin or fat, will ­always be victims to the international do-gooders. The idea that the masses may be able to make their own choices in life does not occur to the hand-wringers: governments must step in to save people from themselves.

For discontented global intellectuals such as Chan, hunger and obesity are caused by the same iniquitous institutions. Capitalism serves only the selfish interests of exploiters and condemns the masses to misery. Malevolent free marketeers must be controlled by the benevolent state. In a centrally planned world run from Geneva and New York, there will be universal abundance.

This delusional thinking is called “progressive” not because it will lead to material progress but because it is designed to ­accelerate what progressives imagine to be the inexorable course of history.

The notion that free markets and free trade may be the cure, rather than the cause, of poverty seems not to occur. Were Chan to read the writings of Ludwig von Mises, for example, one suspects she would be puzzled by his claim that capitalism “is essentially a system of wiping out penury as much as possible”.

Yet, from China and India to southern Africa, that is exactly what has ­occurred.

So now we’re told, without a hint of irony, that the same capitalists who kept Africans thin are using their evil genius to make them fat. WHO wants governments to put a sin tax on sugar, an idea that has been swallowed whole by the Grattan Institute, a pro-tax, anti-business, Melbourne-based think tank funded by government largesse.

If the chin-strokers at Grattan get their way, we’ll be paying about 15c more for a can of full-strength Coke, raising an estimated $500 million a year for the government.

Grattan, like Geldof and Chan, seems to think consumers are irredeemably stupid, mere playthings in the hands of Big Soda who must be shielded by the state, which then clips the ticket along the way.

It’s a measure of the calibre of the Grattan report that they had to get Greens leader Richard Di Natale to launch it. The sugar tax, even on their own courageous assump­tions, would have next to no effect on obesity and would punish moderate soft drink consumers unnecessarily. Asked at the launch if there would be any noticeable reduction in the volume of blubber staggering around the average suburban shopping centre, the report’s author answered no.

Grattan warns of the dire health consequences of the “obesity epidemic”, principally type-2 diabetes. What the report fails to mention is that the incidence of type-2 diabetes has plateaued and the chances of dying from the condition have fallen by 20 per cent in the past 20 years. Nevertheless, Di Natale opined, obesity was one more reason future generations could expect to live shorter lives than their parents.

It seems unlikely. Only last month the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced that Australian men could expect to live ­almost two years longer than they could 10 years ago and women 1.2 years longer.

Still, di Natale could yet be right. His prediction that life spans may decline for the first time since the industrial revolution may be a self-fulfilling prophecy if the anti-business cabal keeps up its war on profit and maintains its enthusiasm for central planning and taxes.

So long as they deny the observable truth — that capitalism rewards those who fulfil the people’s wants in the best and cheapest way — they are quite capable of sending us backwards.


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