A week ago, just before the blog went off air, I was part of the expert panel at a community consensus conference on the topic “Should there be a tax on fatty foods”. This was organised by students at the UQ School of Journalism and was largely about exploring the process, though there was also plenty of interest in the substantive question. It was very professionally organised with its own website, video and news coverage.
The setup for these exercises is that members of the public with an interest in the question get together with a panel of experts to explore the issues, and try to reach a resolution that will hopefully be both well informed and more likely to gain public acceptance than simple reliance on expert judgement. I am sympathetic to the idea, but somewhat sceptical, in the light of experiences like the Constitutional Convention on the Republic (also mentioned by Kate Carnell, former ACT Chief Minister and now CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council who was on the panel). It seems to me that the experts ability to persuade the public participants in a process like this does not necessarily translate into an ability to gain broad public acceptance.
As it turned out, the majority of the public “jury” were sympathetic to the idea of a tax on fatty foods at the outset. Opinion among the experts, on the other hand, ranged from dubious to firmly opposed. Not surprisingly, this swayed the majority of the public participants. There was some interesting discussion of alternatives, but the concise nature of the process tried here (one half-day, as opposed to the multiple weekends adopted in other implementations) didn’t really allow for a full-scale alternative policy.
My opposition was largely based on the regressive nature of the tax, combined with scepticism about its effectiveness in changing diet. I’ve previously called for the removal of the current GST on processed foods, so my position was no surprise and similarly with Kate Carnell. More surprising, maybe, was the similar view of Ingrid Hickman an expert in Nutrition and Obesity who argued that there was no value in dividing foods into “good” and “bad” categories and that what mattered was a healthy cuisine.
A couple of minor exceptions to this came up as the conference went on. First, there are trans fats. I’d vaguely heard of these before and assumed they were a further subdivision of the saturated/unsaturated division. It turns out, however, that these are products of hydrogenation that do not occur in nature, are not essential to health and have numerous adverse effects. The correct response here is not a tax, though, but command and control in the form of a phaseout of these items from food production.
A more plausible case for a tax effect arises with soft drinks. It seems pretty clear that sugar-sweetened soft drinks are a lot worse than the artificially sweetened alternatives (though both are bad in similar ways to trans fats). You could make a good case for exempting the sugar-free versions from tax to promote substitution. The politics of this would be just about impossible, though.