We are used to single issue campaigners flagging up costs to the health service as a justification for raising taxes and restricting liberties. This week the big figure is £6 billion - the putative cost of 'diet-related diseases' to the NHS - which supposedly warrant a tax on a range of food and drink products which various charities, led by Sustain, consider to be 'unhealthy' or 'unsustainable'. Although the campaigners have said that they want to go far beyond Pepsi and Coca-Cola, it is fizzy drinks that have grabbed the headlines. A 20p per litre sin tax, says Sustain's chairman Mike Rayner - who must not be familiar with the work on Jonathan Swift - is a 'modest proposal' which will raise £1 billion for the government.
It is interesting to see how these different costs are framed. The alleged £6 billon cost to the NHS is clearly portrayed as a burden on the taxpayer. The £1 billion that will be 'raised' by the sin tax, on the other hand, is a nice little windfall. And while the £1 billion is seen as a sizeable lump of cash for the government, the individual sums of money that each person must pay to generate it are 'modest'.
In reality, all are unambiguous financial costs to the taxpayer. If the burden of taxation was really Sustain's concern they would surely hesitate to take a further billion pounds from our wallets. Instead we are given a false dichotomy - either we pay £6 billion for 'diet-related diseases' or we pay £1 billion in soda taxes. But enough countries have experimented with these kind of taxes for us to know that they make virtually no difference to number of calories people consume nor to the prevalence of 'diet-related diseases'. To have a real impact on people's eating habits, sin taxes need to be levied at such a high rate that they spell political suicide for whichever government is foolish enough to introduce them. Britain's pasty tax debacle and Denmark's fat tax disaster both illustrate the unpopularity of even quite modest taxes on food.
The soda tax being mooted will simply turn a £6 billion cost into a £7 billion cost. Sustain do not even suggest that the £1 billion raised should go to the NHS. Instead, they want the money to go to organisations that will raise awareness of obesity - organisations like Sustain, for example. They also want to set up a new quango to implement and monitor the extensive bureaucracy that will be involved. This is pure public choice theory in action: concentrated interest groups extracting rents from a large population in order to enlarge their own bureaucracy and enhance their own power and prestige. It comes as no surprise to find that Sustain is largely dependent on handouts from the state (mainly from the Greater London Authority and the National Lottery), as are dozens of the other groups who have joined the campaign.
Sustain's flagship policy is free school meals for all, paid for by a tax on soft drinks. There is, of course, no such thing as a free lunch. What they really mean is that the state will take money from parents by stealth so it can feed their children what the state thinks they should eat. The government is very unlikely to implement such a tax - unlike doctors, they have to stand for re-election - but this week's campaign nonetheless gives an insight into the denizens of public health's appetite for control.