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Column A sugar tax isn’t just desirable, it’s a necessity

Ireland faces a looming health crisis – and the government has no choice but to step in, writes Michael O’Shea of the Irish Heart Foundation.

THERE ARE MANY reasons why Health Minister Dr James Reilly has to tax soft drinks – but the biggest of all is the staggering indifference of manufacturers to the health impacts of their products on young and old alike.

Soft drinks are demonstrably linked to obesity. Many contain staggering amounts of sugar –12 teaspoons in some cases – which for children can exceed daily sugar intakes in one go. Yet aggressive marketing techniques encourage over-consumption and nutritional information can be misleading so people cannot know the damage that is being done. Every day Irish children consume an average of two glasses of mostly sugar-containing soft drinks.

Even worse, consumers – particularly children – are cynically conned by slick advertisements promoting the notion that sugary drinks will make you a better athlete, when the reality is that they are actually much more likely to make you fat.

Therefore, it is the irresponsibility of manufacturers as much as the fizzy drink products themselves that is fuelling an epidemic which if unchecked will result in the premature deaths of a huge proportion of our population and a life beset by chronic disease for many more.

Already 61 per cent of adults and one in four primary children school pupils – that’s 327,000 children – are either overweight or obese. These rates are worsening all the time and will fuel an estimated 50 per cent increase in chronic illnesses such as heart disease and stroke over the next decade.

The health tsunami that threatens to engulf us proves that self-regulation and voluntary codes do not work. So does a cursory glance around any food store or supermarket – buy one get one free; three for the price of two; promotions; prizes and anything else to persuade you to consume more, more, more.

Of course there is nothing wrong with making money, but when profit is maximised to the detriment of the nation’s health it is time for Government to step in. Regulation is clearly needed, the only question is how far should it go?

‘Blatant scaremongering’

To answer this question we first need to look at the industry arguments against a sugar tax made in the wake of the Minister’s proposal. Strip away the most blatant of the scaremongering, such as the ludicrous claim by one trade body that taxing soft drinks would threaten our entire economic recovery and you are left with these essential points: it takes away choice and is Nanny Statist; it would hit the poor hardest; and a tax would cost jobs. Industry spokespeople said what was really needed was greater education.

For the industry to raise the issue of choice is extraordinary. Multi-million marketing campaigns primarily aimed at credulous children virtually frog march them into shops to buy products that can harm them. If protecting our children from the excesses of the marketing men means we are building a Nanny State, that’s a State that most parents would prefer to live in.

The argument that a tax will affect poorer people most is equally cynical. Obesity is no longer a rich person’s condition, it now mainly affects people at the lowest end of the economic scale. They bear the brunt of the death and devastation caused by obesity which is underlined by studies showing that people living in the least well off areas are at least three times as likely to die from heart disease and stroke than people living in the richest areas. A tax will reduce consumption and will therefore help to reduce this appalling health inequality.

The threat to jobs is the default setting argument of the food and drink industry when the Government makes any proposal they don’t like. The fact is that a tax on soft drinks would hit profits, but that does not mean it would have to affect jobs. Indeed, by accepting the inevitability that Governments have no choice for economic as well as health reasons but to impose taxes on unhealthy food and drinks the industry here could actually create more jobs by leading the move to healthier options.

The fact is that it is right that soft drink manufacturers, rather than just taxpayers, pick up some of the bill for the spiralling healthcare costs resulting from the damage their products are doing when taken in excess. And just as importantly, a tax can also help fund some of the positive measures, such as the improved education suggested by the industry that will have a real impact on obesity rates.

What is really required is a combination of measures. In addition to education, we need to subsidise healthier options, such as bottled water; we need to put major restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy products to children (currently being considered by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in its public consultation); and we need to introduce clearer ‘traffic light’ food labelling that show people what they are eating or drinking.

Then we can start making real progress to deal with what is the greatest healthcare challenge facing Ireland in the 21st century.

Michael O’Shea is the chief executive of the Irish Heart Foundation.

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