Yesterday, a BBC news story explained that a committee of MPs is calling for a tax on sugar in soft drinks. The objective of such a tax is primarily to decrease the incidence of obesity in children. Evidence from Mexico apparently indicates that a 10% tax on sugary drinks reduced consumption by 6%. In the UK, the proposal is opposed by the Food and Drink Federation, who object that consumers will have to pay more 'for the products they love.'

My instinctive reaction is that this tax is a good thing. There's no question that obesity is a big problem, and that sugary soft drinks are marketed forcefully. A tax on sugar would allow greater funds for treating obesity-related issues within the NHS, educating families about the health risks associated with sugar, and should also reduce overall consumption.

However, replace the words 'sugar' with 'alcohol' and 'obesity' with 'alcoholism' in that previous paragraph, and my position suddenly flips. So what is the difference between sugar and alcohol in this context?

There is an argument that moderate alcohol consumption can be beneficial to health, but I get the impression that pro-alcohol campaigners are largely abandoning this line, as the evidence is too inconclusive. A potentially stronger defence of alcohol is that it has cultural and social value - and the wine trade usually shouts this claim the loudest. 

Opponents of alcohol dismiss any claims regarding such benefits almost entirely. One of the most powerful anti-alcohol lobbies, Eurocare, makes no distinction between wine and the other alcohols. In fact, search most of their policy documents and the word wine doesn't occur once (neither does beer or spirits).

The UK government alcohol strategy [pdf] states:

In moderation, alcohol consumption can have a positive impact on adults’ wellbeing, especially where this encourages sociability. Well-run community pubs and other businesses form a key part of the fabric of neighbourhoods, providing employment and social venues in our local communities. And a profitable alcohol industry enhances the UK economy. The majority of people who drink do so in an entirely responsible way, but too many people still drink alcohol to excess. The effects of such excess – on crime and health; and on communities, children and young people – are clear. 

Which is an acknowledgement, albeit a cautious one, that alcohol - again, not wine specifically - has some intrinsic value. That argument doesn't apply to sugar, yet the abstention brigade might argue that it doesn't apply to alcohol either - or at least, that the potential disadvantages of alcohol far outweigh the potential advantages.

Another argument against anti-alcohol legislation is that consumers should have the power to make up their own minds. This is pretty much the line that the Food and Drink Federation are following regarding a possible sugar tax. If the wine industry believes that should be the case for wine then those principles should apply equally to sugar.

After all, in both instances, additional tax would force consumers to pay more 'for the products they love.'

Image courtesy FreeImages.com/Mark Webb

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