“A little is not a problem, but a lot kills— slowly,” claimed a recent opinion piece in the journal Nature. What could possibly be the harmful substance to which they are referring? Marijuana? Alcohol? Nope, sugar. According to recent studies the sweet granules that we bake into cookies and sprinkle over grapefruit might actually be more toxic than originally believed. Additionally, as obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease become more prominent, so does the amount of sugar in our diets. For an increasingly health-conscious populace, this is certainly of great concern.
To combat this rising health epidemic, many scientists and left-leaning politicians have suggested taxing sugar like we tax alcohol and tobacco. In other words, they’re advocating for a “sin tax.” A sin tax is “a state-sponsored tax that is added to products or services that are seen as vices, such as alcohol, tobacco and gambling.” This kind of taxation is designed to alter consumer buying habits. A tax on added sugars will directly increase the price of products containing sugar. Based on a simple supply and demand equation, if the price of sugary foods is higher, the demand for them will go down. Therefore, if fewer people buy sugar-laden goods, our nation’s collective health will improve, right? Philosophically speaking, it will take a lot more than higher taxes to lessen the toxic effects of sugar consumption.
According to arguments advocating this sin tax, the goal of this measure is to improve public health by decreasing the amount of sugar Americans consume. Yet, their argument poses a major flaw: they assume that sugar itself is a direct contributor to poor health. Sure, overconsumption of sugar is dangerous and far too many foods on the market are chocked full with excessive amounts of the white stuff. However, this measure taxes sugar itself, not the habit of consuming it, which is what really leads to health problems.
Proponents of a sugar tax hope that the higher prices of sugary goods will prevent consumers from purchasing and therefore eating foods high in sugar. Buying patterns are likely to change if the tax is high enough. However, consumers will be less likely to buy and consume sugar because of its price, not because of its effects on health.
Theoretically, if the sin tax were to be suddenly eliminated, people would eventually return to consuming large amounts of sugar. Healthy behavior changes require internal decisions, not external roadblocks. Sure, a high price on sugary sweets might make a person less likely to purchase them, but the desire for the substance will still be there. A sin tax on sugar will lead people to consume less sugar because of their budgets, not their waistlines. In short, better health is not something that can be “taxed” into people.
Furthermore, like all sin taxes, a possible sugar tax is merely a weapon in the hands of policy makers at odds with uncontrollable human nature. Sugar is a commodity easily controlled by laws and economic policy. You can buy it, sell it, and tax it. Thankfully you cannot say the same thing about human beings. Though behavior patterns emerge, as a species, humans are uncontrollable, unpredictable, and sometimes downright irrational. For example, in regards to health, running ten miles is much healthier than eating a bowl of ice cream. However, sometimes the ice cream looks too good and before you know it, your impulse control is gone, and you’ve got an empty carton of Rocky Road on your hands. Poor impulse control, a lack of education, an insatiable sweet tooth, or whatever behaviors lead to excessive sugar consumption are not permanently curbed by a sin tax. A decision to live healthier is based upon internal desires. Changing one’s buying patterns because of an external tax often excludes the internal motive for change therefore long lasting health benefits. While sugar may be sweet, this form of taxation is nothing but sour.