Encouraging behaviour change is better than penalties

Chancellor Osborne has chosen to be seen to be doing something about the growing obesity issue, rather than actually doing something about it.  That would be more difficult.

We have long been warned that failing to act on obesity will cost: anything from £2bn a year by 2030 to £50bn a year depending on which science you find more believable.

But instead of tackling the tough issues, like encouraging more active lifestyles, the political decision has been to blame part of the economy.  In this case soft drinks.

The evidence suggests a sugar tax will do nothing to help.  Indeed, it could cost jobs and even increase how much sugar people consume.  As the tax is only on soft drinks, it could boost chocolate sales.

In other words, this move will add to our tax burden, inflate Treasury coffers and enable ministers to point to “action”, but little more.

It will delay the hard work that needs to be done to address the obesity issue, and make it more difficult for when the knotty issues are finally grasped.

When that happens, there may be some valuable lessons from the anti-smoking campaign, if the political will demands that action be taken to the extremes.

1. Public transport bans. After years of punitive taxation had little impact on smoking, one of the early anti-smoking measures was to ban smoking on public transport.

So should Government consider size restrictions on the buses and trains?  It might encourage more exercise and relieve crowding for other commuters.

2. Demonisation. Somewhere between James Dean and last Marlborough Man, smoking went from being cool to despicable.  Along the way it became acceptable for strangers to throw unprovoked abuse at smokers for their “revolting” habits.

If the sugar tax proves fruitless, will the Government encourage indiscriminate abuse?

3. More taxation. Taxing smokers more and more has been the gift that keeps on giving for the Treasury. Those who believe we should use tax to engineer social behaviour may simply argue that we are not taxing sugar eaters enough.

Perhaps a future Chancellor will see new revenue-generating opportunities, such as taxing larger-sized clothes.  Levying more tax on bigger outfits would quickly focus the discussion.

4. Make life difficult. The final steps from there should be pretty simple. All sorts of restrictions were imposed on smokers.  So segregate sugar eaters in restaurants and pubs.  Stop sugar eaters getting on planes.  Bar them from shops and public buildings.  If they visit you at home, confine them to the garden or doorstep.

That sounds an outrageous way to treat people doesn’t it?

Even though it is what we did to the smokers, surely a better way of tackling the obesity issue would be to look at what might actually help.

Of course that sort of behaviour change is really difficult, but better that than the discriminatory placebo tax that we are now faced with.

The effort should be for more effective information on making healthy choices and living more active lifestyles.  That should include a real effort to understand how to encourage younger people to get out more, which must mean something for sport in schools.

No doubt manufactures will continue to look at how they can re-constitute healthier products which consumers will still want to buy.  One without the other is useless.