George Osborne must be licking his lips as enthusiastically as a child let loose in a sweetshop at the news that Jamie Oliver (bless him) is starting a campaign to raise a tax on sugar. Jamie launched his campaign today at Feastival when he whipped up the crowd into a frenzy unequalled since the days of Billy Graham, saying that the money raised by taxing sugar would rescue the NHS and save millions of lives into the bargain. His argument is that obesity is caused by sugar, and that the NHS is creaking under the strain of treating obese and diabetic patients.
I attended a Billy Graham rally once, and although I’ve been an atheist all my life, it was all I could do to stop myself joining the crowds who surged forward at the end to sign up to join his sect. It’s the same with Jamie. He’s mesmerizing, but it’s worthwhile looking at a few facts before signing up to yet another new tax. First, sugar consumption has been falling steadily- by 20% since the 1970s- while obesity has been rising. The average number of calories consumed has also fallen, showing that it is inactivity, rather than eating, which has pushed up rates of obesity. Secondly, obese people cost the NHS less than the healthy, because they tend to die younger, and so are less likely to reach the expensive years of extreme old age.
So, the basic premise of Jamie’s campaign is wrong, but it’s wrong for other reasons as well. It’s no business of the government to tell people what they should eat or drink- not least because they’ve been so wrong in their advice in the past. But most importantly, a sugar tax would hit the most vulnerable in society- it’s a very regressive way of collecting revenue, which will make the very poor even poorer- and the very fact that this will bring a smile to George Osborne’s face is reason enough to oppose it.