EDITORIAL THURSDAY 27.08.09.
It has been revealed that the Preventative Health Taskforce set up by the federal government is likely to recommend significant tax increases on tobacco and alcohol, while at the same time proposing healthy food vouchers to assist poor families. The Telegraph has reported that the Taskforce has proposed a “health compact” between the government and the food industry to improve the nutritional quality of supermarket food items such as cornflakes and chips, while providing cash incentives to make fresh fruit and vegetables more affordable. The report is also believed to discuss the possibility of a so called “fat tax” to fight obesity, and also recommends restrictions on the advertising of alcohol.
Many of these proposals are worthwhile propositions which would achieve a great deal to improve community health. However, some of the proposals are of less obvious value, and might also be somewhat contentious. For example, nothing good can be said about cigarettes, so increasing the tax on tobacco might hurt the hip pocket of low income smokers, but in the long run the health benefit is clear. However, the same can’t necessarily be said for alcohol, which can have serious health consequences, but which can also be enjoyed responsibly in moderation. In fact, modest amounts of alcohol are widely believed to have a positive health effect.
Increasing the tax on alcohol would not necessarily deliver the same health dividend as increasing the tax on tobacco. While it might discourage binge drinking, and it might make alcohol less accessible for teenagers, it would also penalize responsible drinkers who happen to be low income earners. For many people the quiet enjoyment of a drink or two after a hard day at work is a fundamental right which should not become a privilege of the wealthy alone. In addition, while higher prices do indeed reduce overall consumption, I suspect that genuine binge drinkers will simply find a way to spend more money, while it is the responsible drinkers who will cut back because they cannot afford it.
Similarly, proposals to ban alcohol companies from sponsoring sporting activities may also miss the mark. What exactly is the problem with the Australian cricket team having an alcohol company as a sponsor? If we accept that alcohol is a legal product which can be enjoyed responsibly, how does sponsoring a sport make it more likely that people will be irresponsible? Is it wrong to associate responsible enjoyment of alcohol with success in sport and other endeavours? If alcohol companies are legally allowed to make profits from selling alcohol, what is wrong with using some of those profits to do good things like promoting sport?
It’s easy to get the impression that we as individuals are not to be trusted to make decisions for ourselves, or to behave responsibly when given all the facts. While it is a great idea to make healthy food cheaper, and to make manufactured food healthier, the plan to increase the tax on cheaper forms of alcohol for our own good is disempowering, and a product of the “nanny state” mentality. It means poor people would be less able to afford a box of “chateau de cardboard”, while the people who are making the rules can still afford to enjoy a bottle of pinot noir whenever they feel like it. Perhaps they feel they are entitled to it and the rest of us are not.