Feature Article: A bitter sweet tax

Liberty is under constant attack. This week we heard something we are becoming much too accustomed to. Pravin Ghordan announced in the annual budget speech that excise duties on alcoholic beverages and tobacco products were to increase with immediate effect and add 9 cents to the price of a 340ml can of beer, 68 cents to a packet of 20 cigarettes, and R4.80 on a bottle of whisky.

These impositions on items that are associated with calming, relaxing and pleasurable past times are dead in line with the strong international inclination for stronger measures to be introduced - all in the interest of helping or forcing us to protect our health. Measures that, when implemented indiscriminately, increasingly infringe upon our personal individual rights.

In the World Cancer Report 2014, published by the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IACR), and released in coincidence with World Cancer Day, , regulators are urged to consider controlling alcohol and sugar consumption along the same lines as the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)as part of their recommended cancer prevention strategy.

According to IACR, The World Cancer Report 2014 “…provides a unique global view of cancer, including cancer patterns, causes, and prevention”.IARC director and co-editor of the report, Dr Christopher Wild, states “Despite exciting advances, this report shows that we cannot treat our way out of the cancer problem. More commitment to prevention and early detection is desperately needed in order to complement improved treatments and address the alarming rise in cancer burden globally.”

In 2005 South Africa ratified the WHO’s FCTC and committed itself to implementing the draconian measures to control tobacco use. We now have legislation that treats smokers as lepers.

It must be remembered that the WHO consists of unelected bureaucrats who are in no position to tell sovereign nations what they can and cannot do. Indeed, countries such as the United States and Switzerland have chosen not to ratify the FCTC agreement, and others such as the Netherlands choose to ignore 8 of the 14 FCTC “obligations”.

In 2010, the Dutch government took the decision to voluntarily relax restrictions on tobacco control because it holds the position that smoking is a personal choice and that it is not the job of government to protect the health of citizens or to force people to make healthy choices. According to an FCTC Shadow Report, “The present Dutch government sees tobacco control as the most patronizing form of policymaking [and the Dutch government feels that they] should not be a nanny to its citizens”. The Dutch government even cut its funding of mass media educational campaigns for tobacco control completely in 2011. The Minister of Health stated that because she was able to stop smoking without treatment and because smokers save money when they stop smoking, smokers should pay for their own treatment.

South Africa’s statist Minister of Health, on the other hand, has indicated that he is quite willing to trample on people’s freedoms by introducing further new regulations and legislation relating to the control of “unhealthy habits”. In addition to tobacco, these are likely to include reducing the amount of salt and fatty acids in food and banning alcohol advertising. Minister Motsoaledi justifies these intended actions by claiming that “We are not doing this because we are a nanny state, but because we are concerned about the health of the nation.”

In pursuance of this stated aim by the Minister, Prof Freeman, Head of Non-communicable Disease at the South African Department of Health said a sugar tax is  “…an option that is being considered and we are assessing the evidence around this.” Before analysing the merits (or lack thereof) of such a sugar tax, it is important to note the different types of taxes and why taxes are imposed.

Broadly speaking there are two types of taxes: direct and indirect taxes. Direct taxes, such as personal and company taxes, are paid directly to government. Indirect taxes are collected on behalf of the government by intermediaries, such as retail outlets, and paid over to government at a later date. The most common example of indirect taxation is VAT.

Most indirect taxes are stealthily applied to only certain goods and services. Some people are not even aware that their purchases of these goods include tax. These taxes are typically referred to as ‘soft taxes’ because they can be easily imposed by government without the public knowing anything about them. Prime examples are fuel levies and the so-called ‘sin taxes’ that are levied mainly on alcohol and tobacco products.

Taxes are imposed for one of two reasons or a combination of both: either to raise revenue for government coffers or to raise the price of certain goods or services so as to reduce the demand for them. Proponents of sin taxes believe that certain goods are bad for consumers and thus argue that they should be taxed in order to raise their prices and thereby deter people from consuming them.

Taxing sugar and other “sinful products” is a blunt instrument that, besides treating adults like children, diverts attention from government’s insatiable appetite to control ordinary people’s lives and to raise revenue by any and every means possible. The true unhealthy appetite belongs, not to those consumers of sugar threatened with another undeserved tax, but the taxer. If you are an individual concerned about your health, take charge of your own life – do not shrug off your personal responsibilities and entrust your health care to some non-existent collective. There is no such thing as “public health”. Better health outcomes can only be achieved by individuals taking charge of their own lives. 

A tax on sugar will erode further our personal freedoms. Yesterday it was tobacco, today it may be sugar and salt, tomorrow it could be government imposed restrictions on how loud you play your iPod or car radio; how close you sit to your television set; in time it will be how long you should be out in the sun and, even, who you may or may not sleep with. The choices will no longer be yours to make – all in the name of your health.

Source: This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.


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