It's not morality; it's a response to a public-health emergency

Barnaby Joyce Australian Nationals leader, defending the interests of the sugar industry, instead of public health.Australian political leader Barnaby Joyce (above) came across my screen today, and I couldn’t let him go.

An institute study argues that a national anti-obesity effort should be funded by a tax on sugary beverages, and Joyce decried it as “another moralistic tax.” [Link includes video of interview.]

Joyce calls the idea “bonkers mad” because it would create “massive problems” for the sugar industry. He says the Australian Tax Office isn’t going to make people lose weight, going for a run and cutting portion sizes will. You may be saying, “Yeah, so what? This is how conservatives react to this proposed public-health response to an evident public-health problem.” I would respond that you’re correct.

The reason for writing is to poke at this idea of a “moralistic tax.” There’s nothing moral about it. The ubiquity of refined sugar, most notoriously in sugary beverages, threatens public health. Substantial societal costs result from this threat, and it is the job of government to meet public-health threats.

To say that we should leave public-health threats to personal responsibility — now that's “bonkers mad.”

Meanwhile, consider cigarette taxes. Quite a few people, myself included, quit smoking at least in part because of their rising cost. For me, it was when Ronald Reagan doubled the cigarette tax in his first term. It wasn’t the 8-cent rise, it was the idea of doubling it. That’s it, I said, I’m not going to be Uncle Sam’s monkey anymore.

We have excellent primary information that says that taxes on a noxious substance are an effective method of reducing their market attractiveness, and the money raised can be used to raise other efforts that help people to stop using.

Yes, people can and should make healthy choices. But when they’re not, and public health suffers, and the public must bear the cost, governments that don’t act are malfeasant.

Mr. Joyce wails that the sugar industry will suffer if policy is changed. But there’s already lots of suffering, for individuals drowning in the flood of sugar syrup, and the taxpayers and ratepayers who must bear the increased costs.

But Mr. Joyce apparently just feels the industry’s pain. We can see who he’s presenting.

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