Considering the cost to public health of treatment for obesity-related illnesses, the sugar tax proposal makes a pretty good prima facie case. But there are arguments against it that are a little more sophisticated than Mr Joyce’s efforts (not that I would expect anything too nuanced from a guy that thinks it is okay to spend 25 million forcibly moving a whole department from Canberra to his own electorate).
Pricing mechanisms have been shown to be effective strategies for changing behaviour (which was why we had to get rid of a price on carbon I suppose), so I am broadly in favour of this concept as part of a raft of strategies. However the immediate imposition of a hefty sugar tax on its own, without complementary strategies- is just another form of indirect discrimination that will target one group of society (the poorest) far more heavily than the rest. And it is hard to escape the suspicion that this has been chosen not because it the most likely to change behaviour, but because it would be the least politically difficult to achieve.
If we are going to start taxing sugar like tobacco and alcohol, perhaps we need to start treating it similarly in other ways to. If we really want to make a difference, we should re-evaluate rules around advertising and availability. Of course this is likely to draw some push back from groups with a lot more influence.
Along with the public messaging going on around sugar, we need to step up efforts to educate people about the long term impact of poor diet and obesity. The prevalence of eating disorders within society make this a delicate issue though (one that I will write about in more detail soon) and one that is also confused by the well-intentioned efforts of positive body image advocates. Despite clear medical advice, the government seems a bit paralysed here and hasn't put much effort into this area for some time.
Overall, I am not against a pricing mechanism for sugar, but it needs to be implemented carefully alongside other strategies. We also need to understand that such a policy will cause some financial stress for some households, especially those who have up until now consumed a high sugar diet.