Of all the things we buy, food is one of the most individualistic and personal. Food literally becomes a part of us, it sustains us, it changes our behaviour and the shape of our bodies and it has a virtual monopoly on one of the five senses which we use to understand and take in the world. To regulate such a product in a fashion similar to smoking should be see for what it is: a serious limit of personal freedom.
Yet, it is not just because of the publicised pressures on the NHS that the latest flurry of calls for government intervention in the market comes as no surprise. Given its importance to our wellbeing, throughout history there have been state efforts to control and manage.
The latest chapter in this history is a striking one: Britain’s calorie consumption has been declining year on year since 2007 and for the first time in our history we are now more likely to associate obesity with poverty rather than opulent wealth. Thus, the battle to regulate food and manage consumption has moved onto new social justice grounds. The linage of initiatives such as the 5 A Day Campaign and the Traffic Light labelling system may now have a new edition conceived by the serious calls for the regulation and tax of sugar.
The hunger to regulate disempowers consumers by seeing their desires as one-dimensional. To penalise one type of consumption is to ignore the context around it. Some people eat a lot of sugar generally; others eat some extremely sugary things but only rarely.
Within products themselves, market research consistently shows that consumers have a list of priorities when it comes to selection. This is one of the reasons food packaging and advertising campaigns have so many messages. It can also be seen that what weighting these priorities have to consumer’s changes with the information available. A blanket tax on sugar is not only an infringement on a deeply personal liberty but, as with so many regulations, it seems unlikely to achieve its end - doing little to change conscious behaviour.
If there is one thing I’ve learnt from working in the food industry it is that consumers lead the market, they do not follow it. Only by empowering their leadership through better information can the sort of public benefit the tax seeks be brought about.
Educate to empower, regulate to restrict.
Michael Goode works in the food industry after graduating from Cambridge, where he was Chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association. He has recently finished a book exploring a personal account of the First World War, due to be published in July 2016.