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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

France’s New Sugar Tax Is Bitterly Ironic

Sugary beverages are not France's problem.

In yet another move to crack down on fun public health hazards, the French government reached an agreement with the parliament for a new tax on sugary drinks. How long are people going to continue to accept the modern Nanny State?

Sweet, Sweet Irony

The minister insisted that the tax was to crack down on the “very dangerous” consumption of sugar.

Minister of Health Agnès Buzyn, who since her inauguration has been tirelessly working on creating new legislative burdens, was skeptical at first about new proposals for soda taxes. In interviews in early October, she said that “we’d basically be taxing the poorest of the poor”, and that she’d much rather put even heavier taxes on tobacco (which clearly isn’t a great idea either for that matter). Instead of just adding a new tax, Buzyn believed that the government should put more efforts into public health campaigns and providing educational tools to parents.

Last week, however, the Ministry of Health reached an agreement on this issue which foresees no new tools for education, but merely a new tax on added sugar. The minister insisted that the tax increase was not there to increase revenue, but to crack down on the “very dangerous” consumption of sugar.

Despite not admitting to it, the government clearly hopes for a massive increase in revenue through these sort of taxes. In September, parliament already argued for an increase, which followed up on a proposal from 2016, which would increase revenue by over half a billion euros per year. There goes the concern for poor people.

France is also subsidizing sugar.

French Republicans are unlikely to oppose new Nanny State policies, as they came up with the idea themselves. The so-called soda tax was introduced by President Nicolas Sarkozy, only to be raised by following socialist governments. The initial tax constituted €7.53 on 100 liters of soda, being 2.51 cents for a can of 33 centiliters. One might suggest that this is steeped in irony, considering that, while being part of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, France is also subsidizing sugar. Subsidising sugar first, before making it more expensive once it’s sold. Not very sweet.

France’s debt to GDP is closing in on 100 percent, unemployment is at 10 percent (with youth unemployment double that rate). The corporate tax rate is at a staggering 33.3% as of this year (8+% over the OECD average and 11+% over the EU average). If you then add the strong trade union presence, strikes, and workers’ protections that can get you prosecuted for years to come if you lay them off, then it seems a bit odd that the government believes the problem is François from the petrol station who wants a second Coke with his Big Mac.

Regulation Hasn’t Made France Any Healthier

The République does indeed uphold culinary hedonism, and there are health-related effects to this mindset: between 1997 and 2009, the obesity level rose from 8.5 to 14.5 percent. In 2016, Le Monde reports that a number of obese people has risen to over 15.5 percent, with 25.3 percent of women and 41 percent of men being generally overweight.

It’s not really the sugary beverages that are the problem.

However, if you go to France, you’ll find that it’s not really the sugary beverages that are the problem. French people like to eat a lot and well, washing down their tasty food with a reasonable amount of wine (over 40 liters per person per year to be quite precise). And yet you couldn’t, as a government minister, target your local industries? Aiming at large foreign corporations such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi turns out to be more electorally defensible.

So yes, France does have concerns when it comes living healthily, but the ultimate question is: whose problem is it? Is it the government’s problem?

After banning ads for tanning beds, soda dispensers in schools, and plastic cups, nothing really seems off-limits anymore, while nothing actually works. Earlier this year, France banned free soda-refills in restaurants, with the likely result that people will just consume their soft drinks at home instead of at McDonald’s.

Now the question for those who value pragmatism above freedom obviously is: will soda taxes make people healthier? And there is no definitive answer to that question.

If the need for sugar consumption remains, then people are likely to downgrade their standards or simply substitute with food or drinks that are less taxed.

Adults can make informed choices about their own lives, and even if those choices might not be the most informed ones.

This has been shown in the example of Denmark, which introduced a special fat tax on consumption goods, only to repeal the bill (with the same majority) 15 months later. What had happened? Not only was the tax an additional burden on people with low incomes, it also incentivized consumers to downgrade to cheaper products in the supermarket (while maintaining their consumptions of fats), leading to no impact on health and minor impact on consumption overall.

Self-Control over State-Control

Instead of falling into the same Nanny-State trap of over-regulating that which spurns regulations, namely personal preferences, France should choose the road of liberty. Adults can make informed choices about their own lives, and even if those choices might not be the most informed ones in the case of every individual, they remain superior to the uninformed choice of a privileged few at the top.

The are no easy answers to “how do we become better people”, but it cannot just be that we hand our self-control to hands of politicians and make it “state-control”. Or maybe we do, and then later just wash our sorrows down with expensive soda. Who knows.

  • Bill Wirtz is a Young Voices Advocate and a FEE Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow. His work has been featured in several outlets, including Newsweek, Rare, RealClear, CityAM, Le Monde and Le Figaro. He also works as a Policy Analyst for the Consumer Choice Center.

    Learn more about him at his website