Jamie Oliver’s “Sugar Tax” – the icing on the austerity cake

We need to stop patronising people and curve-balling round the real problem.

Steve Topple
25 October 2015

Image: K Roark/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

So once again professional Mockney, sometimes chef and all-round bourgeois “entrepreneur” Jamie Oliver has waded into the debate over the health of the country – this time concerning our sugar consumption.

Addressing the House of Commons Health Committee on Monday, he stated that a levy on fizzy drinks (or a “sugar tax”) would be the “single most important” change that could be made in relation to tackling child obesity. Comparing the role of government to his own as a father, he proclaimed that when his kids are naughty, they “go on the naughty step. This is what this tax is”.

David Cameron has ordered the forthcoming child obesity strategy in response to the latest figures, which show 19.1% of children leave primary school obese – a rise of 1.6% in 7 years. The statistics also show that obesity amongst adults has increased by (on average) 10% since 1993. Around a quarter of the country now classed as obese and nearly two thirds of us are deemed overweight.

Oliver is of course quite right to call for action on this now global “crisis”.

But his naïve and crude theorem that we don’t realise how much sugar is in fizzy drinks (so let’s charge you more so you think about it, geezers!) could have been devised by one of the primary school children whose best interests he appears to want to promote.

Like some wet-behind-the-ears, overly enthusiastic PPC for the Liberal Democrats, Oliver has devised a 5 point “Sugar Manifesto” which he believes will help the UK wean itself off its sordid disaccharide habit.

While some of the notions are of course excellent (making the traffic light system mandatory on food labelling), this central theme of a levy of 20p on a litre of fizzy pop simply stinks. It shows Oliver’s profound lack of understanding of obesity and its relationship with the UK’s socioeconomic climate.

The latest childhood obesity statistics published by the government show a direct link between the prevalence of obesity and deprivation. Children living in the 10% most deprived areas of the country are twice as likely to be obese compared to children living in the 10% least deprived areas. And the areas where children are the most likely to be obese are in the bottom 5% of deprivation.

What’s more, the inequality gap in childhood obesity appears to be increasing – that is, rates of obesity are falling amongst the wealthiest children, while there has only been a stabilisation for the poorest.

The same pattern can be seen in the adult deprivation statistics.

The prevalence of obesity increases as wages fall, as educational attainment drops, as social class lessens. The most startling figure shows rates of obesity are highest in women who work in unskilled manual jobs – 10% more than their male counterparts, in fact.

I’m no sociologist, but does the combination of these statistics with the ones that show employment amongst women with dependent children has risen 6.2% since 1996 (and their male counterparts by 4.3%), along with lone parent employment rising by a staggering 20%, point to one possible reason for the increase in childhood obesity? Time poverty?

If so, Oliver obviously hasn’t considered that possibility. Nor has he considered the possibility that his “Sugar Tax” will end up being just another stick to bash the poor with. World Health Organisation research from 2010 shows that the prevalence of fizzy drink consumption amongst children in the UK decreased when affluence increased. The same was found for the likelihood of missing breakfast, and not eating fruit – two of the biggest influencers of obesity.

Like the much maligned “pasty tax” before it, a “sugar tax” appears once again to be a stealth tax on the poorest in society – hammering those who have always been stung by VAT, recently hit by the bedroom tax, and soon-to-be punished by the cuts to tax credits.

If you watch enough Channel 5 “documentaries” (like Oliver may well do, judging by his thought processes), you may be of the opinion that these “poor” people who are obese should simply stop eating food that’s bad for them – and if charging more for these items is a way of doing it, then so be it.

Such a mind-set is in the same vein as screaming that people on benefits shouldn’t have flat screen TVs (ignoring the fact you cannot buy anything but flat screen TV’s now). Or should the underclass all huddle round one open fire (which their washing is drying on) singing Chas & Dave while feeling chipper about their lot in life?

In her book “Getting By”, Lisa McKenzie talks at length about the “culture of poverty” in the UK, from the viewpoints of those who have never experienced precariousness and those who encounter it daily. She argues that “problems… arise through the thoughtlessness of those who make decisions for the many” going on to say that “through the inequalities that thrive in British society” living in a deprived area is undoubtedly difficult.

If you’ve ever experienced extreme poverty, you will understand the constant feelings of being looked down upon; stigmatisation; self-worthlessness and exclusion. But as McKenzie cites, living in a deprived community also offers protection from these feelings, and creates its own set of values.

Fundamentally, people “on the outside” view eating takeaways, smoking, wearing “bling” and so on as negative stereotypes surrounding the UK’s “underclass”. But if you actually live in one of these communities, they make up part of your society’s value system - things which appear insignificant to the wider population hold great significance, because their relative value is so much higher.

When you already have very little in life, it’s the remaining little things which take on extra importance. Having a McDonalds for dinner, being able to take a bottle of coke into school or buying a 6 pack of Stella are your way of feeling part of society – a feeling which is rammed down our throats day in, day out on those flat screen TVs we all watch. Thinking of the sugar content, whether it may cause you to have type two diabetes in twenty years’ time or if your BMI is rocketing above 30 is wholly irrelevant.

“The poor” aren’t stupid, however much the likes of Jamie Oliver may imply they are. His idea it was right to target fizzy drinks “because people did not realise just how much sugar was in such drinks” is horrendously condescending, and once again curve balling around the underlying problem.

Smacking another crude tax on people is putting a sticking plaster on a broken leg. People’s nutritional edification is not the issue here – the gaping chasm of UK inequality is.

If Jamie Oliver wishes to make the token gesture of putting a levy on the price of soft drinks in his already over-priced restaurant chain, then good for him – I’m sure the obese middle classes will be eternally grateful.

But he can leave tackling the real crux of the obesity crisis in the UK – the perpetual rise in swathes of society who merely exist in deprivation – to the experts.

Those of us who have actually lived it.

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