Governments are wrong to try to save us from ourselves, argues Peter Knight

Stuff your face with fatty food, wash it down with a gulp-sized cola laced with cut-price whisky and spend the rest of the afternoon on the La-Z-Boy brewing a little diabetes.

What’s wrong with that? And whose corporate responsibility is it anyway?

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are in a fizz about getting us to live healthier lives. They are roaming about with the sharp sticks, prodding the makers of food, soft drinks and booze to rein in their legitimate business activities in the hope of getting us to moderate our consumption and eat more curly kale.

They should desist and leave us to destroy our health if that is what we want to do. It is our personal responsibility to take care of ourselves, not that of the corporation.

Chief prodder is Michael Bloomberg, the hugely successful soon-to-be-former mayor of New York City. It’s easy to like the man. He is not afraid to take on quixotic tasks, such as curbing the coal industry and getting his fellow Americans to understand the implications of climate change. I like him because he likes bicycles and his administration has made New York much more bike-friendly.

But his campaign to outlaw sugary drinks bigger than 16 ounces (473ml) in his city was plainly ridiculous and was thrown out by the courts. I argued for personal responsibility in an earlier column but since then the desire to punish us for our consumption habits has jumped the Atlantic.

The UK prime minister, David Cameron, unveiled plans in December 2011 to impose a minimum pricing structure on alcoholic drinks, although his government has yet to put forward a firm proposal. A minimum-pricing law was passed in Scotland in 2012, but its legality has been challenged and it is not yet in force.

Minimum pricing is a tax on the poor who would have to find alternatives to harsh supermarket vodka, while the rich and fashionable at Shoreditch House would continue to sip on their 20-quid cocktails unaffected by Cameron’s elitist decree.

Sin taxes

The primary argument in favour of sin taxes is the cost to the nation of wayward drinkers, diabetics and smokers. Both libertarians and nannies quote John Stuart Mill: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of the civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

Libertarians see this as defending our personal liberty to destroy our health. But nannies italicise the “harm to others” saying the cost to publicly funded health services (the NHS in the UK and Medicaid and Medicare in the US) counts here.

It’s a good point, but not good enough, for two reasons. First, many studies argue that the tax collected by booze and tobacco adequately pays for the medical treatment of those affected by the products. (And sinners die young, reducing the burden on the state). Second, the punitive effect of sin taxes falls disproportionately on the poor. The rich can shrug off the cost of an over-priced Manhattan, but the chap on the La-Z-Boy will go in search of bootleg moonshine for his cocktail. 

Research on the drinking habits of the young in places such as the US, Europe and Australia shows a clear decline in alcohol consumption. Despite the bad media rap for binge drinking, it appears the youth are a lot more sensible about their boozing than their parents.

The decline in both drinking and smoking in mature (ie stagnating) economies is due to behavioural change brought on by social mores, not taxes.

Let’s face it, politicians are desperate for the cash raised by sin taxes and do not care about the condition of our lungs or livers. This is borne out by the absurdity of their position on the sin industries – tobacco, alcohol and gambling – which they both nurture and bleed, like a vampire bat keeping a pet in the basement.

Soon sugar will be added to the list. And then why not bicycles? People fall off them regularly and cost the health services a lot in plasters or band aids.

Why nanny politicians will fail is neatly encapsulated by Theresa Marteau, a behaviourist at Cambridge University. “We are exquisitely sensitive to environment,” she says in the Financial Times. “We are just like rats – energy misers and cognitive misers. If there is a shortcut, we will take it.”

And that’s why prohibition failed.

Peter Knight is chairman of Context.

government  Peter Knight  politics  stakeholder engagement 

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