Intervention – “Taxing Sugar, Sweetening Inequality: Disrupting George Osborne’s ‘Sugar Tax’ with the Agential Properties of Sugar Itself”

Louise MacAllister, Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Predictions for the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne’s Spring 2016 Budget were of tax cuts for higher earners set against further austerity measures, including a highly controversial cut to personal independent payments (Dominiczak and Swinford 2016; Jones 2016). These predictions were realised, but what came as a surprise to many political commentators was an announcement that appears to go against the UK Conservative Government’s drive towards ever-lower taxation, that of a “sugar tax”:

A new soft drinks industry levy to help tackle childhood obesity, by incentivising companies to reduce the sugar in the drinks they sell, to fund a doubling of the primary schools sports premium to £320 million per year. (HM Treasury 2016)

The UK Conservative Government had previously appeared unwilling to implement such a levy, stating only a few months earlier in response to a petition on the issue that it “has no plans to introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages” (Department of Health 2015). This about-turn was described by celebrity chef and child health campaigner Jamie Oliver (2016), as “so symbolic because it shows that the Government finally believe that enough is enough … child health must come first”.

In this intervention I argue that although the “sugar tax” gives the impression of a government prepared to take on structural causes of health issues, and raise revenue for public services through taxation, it is in fact an attempt to mask the fundamentally unjust drive towards low tax and low welfare, seen in this budget. Furthermore, the “sugar tax” acts to reduce the complexities that lie behind sugar consumption, diet, and health, which are often rooted in wider systems of inequality. By reducing such complexity, simplistic and problematic neoliberal discursive constructions of individual responsibility lie unchallenged.

The assumption that excessive sugar consumption is the product of poor choices posits education as the solution to ensure that individuals make “healthy choices” (Colls and Evans 2008, 2009). Conversely, a structural approach to excessive sugar consumption suggests solutions based on industry regulation such as advertising restrictions (Pomeranz 2012). A tax on sugar would be positioned as a structural approach in as far as it incentivises the industry to reconsider the amount of sugar that products contain. However, since the announcement of the “sugar tax”, many have voiced concerns that it will simply push up prices for consumers (Courea 2016; Wright and Cooper 2016). Higher prices may be considered a good incentive for individuals to cut back on sugar consumption following the “nudge” tactics of libertarian paternalism (Sunstein 2014; see also Pykett 2012); however, in the remainder of this intervention I will foreground the agential properties of sugar itself in order to explore the complexities behind a sugar tax. This discussion will be illustrated with insights from research that was undertaken with parents in Devon in the UK, which explored the ways in which anti-obesity discourses affect parenting practices. This research was based on in-depth semi-structured focus groups and interviews with parents of primary school-aged children, who were recruited through the Devon state primary schools. Focus group and interview transcripts were transcribed verbatim and participant names were anonymised. (For a more extensive discussion of this research, see MacAllister 2016.)

In the anti-obesity discourses and related policies of the contemporary UK, sugar has been at the forefront of foods to be avoided. The NHS’s Change4Life campaign states that: “Too much sugar means extra calories, which cause fat to build up and could lead to heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes” (Change4Life 2015). However, unlike dietary fat, sugar is commonly reported as akin to a drug which is “pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focused on profit not health” (Action on Sugar, quoted in NHS 2014). Notably within these reports, sugar is framed as affecting the brain in such a way that it diminishes self-control. Concerns have specifically been raised around high levels of added sugar that are often found in food marketed as “healthy” or “low fat” (Malnick et al. 2014).

Bennett (2010) describes the way in which potato chips (crisps), call forth the hand which acts only quasi-intentionally, as the chips provoke the hand to act, to take and consume. Such a framing of a food stuff as an actant in the formation of the assemblage that is human bodies, troubles the wholly human agency which is evoked within the “sugar tax”, whether it is the agency of the discerning consumer, or a soft drinks manufacturer altering a recipe. Participants in the research project that I draw on here discussed sugar extensively; it was attributed with a significant ability to shape the bodies and actions of participants and their children, more so than other foodstuffs. The following quote demonstrates the extent to which sugar shapes actions beyond the moment of consumption:

My mother in law, … she knows that we don’t have chocolate, sweets and crisps in the house, so when the children go to her up near London she piles the house full of it and the kids are like, “yeah!” And of course when they come back they are craving it, big time, and Ethan is almost in tears because I won’t give it to him. (Natalie, mother of two)

Lustig et al. (2012) describe the addictive mechanisms of sugar in the body, arguing that it suppresses the hormone ghrelin (which signals hunger); interferes with the hormone leptin (which produces feelings of satiety); and reduces dopamine signalling (which means less pleasure is derived from food, and compels the individual to consume greater amounts in order to gain the same level of pleasure). Much the same narrative is used to explain alcohol or drug addiction. The actions of sugar in the body complicate a simplistic mind over body control in addressing excessive sugar consumption.

Bennett (2010) explains that we enter a non-linear assemblage with food, in which the addition of small causes (affective foods) to an existing assemblage (the human body) cannot necessarily be seen straight away. Such affects may arise slowly, or in unexpected ways as the assemblage stabilises with the addition of the new components, for example through the experience of diverse feelings and emotions that arise through the consumption of sugar, such as pleasure or guilt. The effects of sugar on the human-non human assemblage known as the body are slowly brought to light, as Natalie’s son Ethan is reduced to tears when sugary food is no longer available. In this way, the outcomes of sugar consumption exceed attempts to reduce it to linear consequences, such as Change4Life’s description of sugar building up and potentially causing disease, or George Osborne’s plan to tax sugar out of soft drinks in order to directly reduce consumption.

However, it is not just the effects of sugar within the body that reveal its agential properties. For some parents who participated in the research, it was the understanding that sugar can be addictive that gave sugar agential properties to structure behaviours around its avoidance:

Recently it’s been in the media about sugar, you know, sugar is addictive, and my son, I’ve tried to get him to snack on healthy things, … he’ll get quite a big bowl of raisins and I’m thinking, you know, “they are loaded with sugar; should he be eating that?” (Marianne, mother of two)

Because of Marianne’s awareness of the effects of sugar in the body, she acts to reduce her son’s sugar consumption. I suggest that this is demonstrative of the agential properties of sugar itself, as it organises human bodies around its consumption and avoidance. By foregrounding the agency of sugar itself, the desirable public health model of well-informed citizens making autonomous decisions based on the available information, is disrupted. Though I welcome approaches to public health that recognise responsibility beyond the individual, the extent to which the sugar tax represents this must be treated with caution. As I have demonstrated within this short discussion piece, by considering the agency of sugar itself we can begin to trace the complexities of its consumption and avoidance which are denied in the simplistic “sugar tax”. Instead, the tax works on an assumption that responses from individuals or industry will be based on rational economic decisions, free from embodied desires, habitual tastes, structural constraints, and cultural norms. While a levy on soft drinks may appear to target industry, the costs to industry may simply be passed on to consumers (Courea 2016; Wright and Cooper 2016). In modelling a tax on sugar sweetened drinks, Lin et al. (2011) found that this would form a regressive tax that would impact upon lower-income individuals and families the hardest.

An agential understanding of sugar may complicate efforts to reduce its consumption in the population. However, giving attention to the distributive agency which structures sugar consumption has the potential for reducing individual blame and stigma, which Muennig (2008) argues is responsible for many of the health issues that are attributed to obesity. The framing of obesity as the result of poor consumption choices is not as clear cut as it is often described (Campos 2004; Gard and Wright 2005; Rich et al. 2011), yet the enduring image of the lazy or ignorant parent allowing their child to over-consume sugar and become obese is a pervasive one which has captured the imagination of the population. The “sugar tax” therefore works well as a strategy to distract popular attention away from the inequality within the 2016 Spring Budget. Yet by attending to material agency we may counter such a strategy by creating possibilities to destabilise the reductive versions of life evoked within this budget and the UK Conservative Government’s neoliberal ideology.


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