Government Should Not Regulate Sugar Like Alcohol Or Tobacco to Curb Obesity


On Wednesday, a team of scientists writing in the journal Nature argued that sugar is a toxic substance and should be regulated in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco. The rationale behind the proposal follows that of similar attempts to regulate things deemed harmful to our health: It's for the public good. I don't doubt the motives of the researchers, but their argument is inconsistent and dangerous, and there's no reason to treat sugar like alcohol or tobacco.

The science behind the proposed restrictions on sugar is sound. The substance can indeed kill you if consumed in great enough amounts, and it may even be addictive. But, sugar is ubiquitous in our food supply. Many seemingly healthy foods (e.g. whole grain bread, rice) are loaded with the stuff. As I have argued previously on PolicyMic, the government-approved dietary guidelines designed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommend a diet composed largely of carbohydrates, which turn to sugar in the bloodstream and are ultimately stored in our fat cells. This is a conclusion backed by ample scientific research, and one usually ignored by food cops. We could ban the sale of junk food to minors, raise the price of twinkies to $30 a box, and the restrictions would little to solve the obesity problem. The USDA's lousy dietary advice needs to be rescinded to do that. 

Secondly, the United States holds down the price of sugar by heavily subsidizing corn farmers. $1.6 billion in annual subsidies makes products made from corn -- like the primary sweetener used in soda (high fructose corn syrup) -- much cheaper than they otherwise would be. Eliminating federal support for corn production would naturally increase the price of products made with high fructose corn syrup (nearly every unhealthy food on the planet) without imposing more taxes and restrictions on individual behavior. Unless we remove those subsidies, implementing taxes on sugar consumption is a contradictory and inane proposal.  

But putting aside those objections for a moment, taxation is a questionable means for reducing sugar consumption. According to three scientists writing in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 2010, the evidence in support of soda taxes, for example, is severely lacking. "Before assigning blame for the obesity epidemic," one researcher wrote, "we should have clinical evidence that an intervention to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages ... will reduce the long-term propensity for obesity." Though authors don't endorse the tax, they argue that it fails because it is too narrow. "All high-caloric foods can be tied to obesity. If soda is taxed, should this tax also be applied to all “fast food,” confections, or portion size?" A more recent study reached the same conclusion for identical reasons. In order to be effective, taxes would have to be very high and applied to all sugary foods and drinks. 

But that leads to a very important point: Living in a society where the government retains that much control over our choices isn't worth the marginal benefit it may provide. Why not implement taxes on all unsafe habits? After all, the rationale for a sin tax on motorcycle ownership or lack of exercise is the same as that for a tax on unhealthy food. And as PolicyMic Pundit Jon Lewis argued, that's the logical extension of a sugar tax: "The decision as to what constitutes “harmful” activity, however, is often a subjective one. Who decides what is harmful and what is not? ... Going down the road of taxing things that are, in some sense, bad for you would open the door for future initiatives by disparate political constituencies. There is a reason why paternalism has a pejorative connotation."  

My suspicion is that most advocates of these draconian taxes don't think through the implications of their proposals. But that's no excuse. This is where policymakers and voters should step in and put an end to the insanity. Obesity is a real problem and it needs to be addressed, just not at the expense of individual liberty.

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