Sugar is set to take its place among the UK’s sin taxes. Doctors are calling for an end to tackling in school rugby matches. Wales is debating a ban on public use of ecigarettes. George Osborne may be determined to shrink Britain’s state with his cuts in public spending, but the nanny state, it appears, is ever-expanding.
As the chancellor calculated, in announcing a measure bound to distract from the more painful news contained in Wednesday’s Budget speech, people often feel far more strongly when the government interferes with their personal choices than they do about its regular intrusions on their personal finances.
Governments around the world, however, are increasingly inclined to try to influence matters of lifestyle. Taxes targeting sugary drinks are in place in France and Mexico; smoking bans apply to ecigarettes in Spain and Belgium; contact sports are under scrutiny, after an outcry over the brain damage sustained by many professional players in American football. Australia, despite its macho image, has gone even further to protect citizens from self-inflicted injury, with firework bans, plain cigarette packaging and big fines for riding bicycles with no helmet.
For critics of such nannying, public health advocates are no better than morality police. So there is a need for clarity about the circumstances that justify intervention, and the measures most likely to influence behaviour.
The principles should be clear. There is a case to intervene when people act in a way that harms those around them, or when it is a case of safeguarding children who cannot take an informed decision, and may face bigger risks. If adults take risks with their own health, they should be made aware of the dangers and perhaps nudged into sense, but there is no case for coercion.
So it is reasonable to tax sugary treats, especially those that are designed to appeal to children. It is also helpful to press manufacturers to cut “hidden sugar” from their recipes. It is less clear whether the tax will make a difference: the mid-Atlantic outpost of St Helena is in a position to tackle a diabetes epidemic by slapping punitive import duties on soda, but Denmark withdrew similar “fat taxes” that simply led to a rise in cross-border shopping trips. The new UK tax is somewhat arbitrary, applying only to certain drinks, but its design seems sensible: a high rate with a two-year delay that will give companies both the incentive and the time to change their recipes.
When it comes to rugby, few fans would countenance a ban on tackling. However, there is a strong case for rule changes to encourage players to create and run into space rather than emphasising collisions to carve open lines of attack. Injured players, particularly in schools, should be monitored more effectively for concussion. In the modern game, grace and guile should trump brute force.
Bans on ecigarettes seem unfounded. In contrast with traditional smoking, there is little evidence that “vaping” has any real effect on bystanders, or that it persuades young people to take up tobacco. Those who use ecigarettes — often smokers trying to quit — are taking some risks, but are entitled to do so. It is uncomfortable to watch tobacco companies applying tried and tested techniques to glamorise ecigarettes. The majority buying them are switching from a far more harmful alternative.
From seat belts to pension enrolment, there can be a good case for governments to protect people from their own and others’ recklessness. But they must act on clear evidence, not in response to the moral panic of the day.
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