The government should not be allowed to decide what its citizens consume, says Temba Nolutshungu.
Johannesburg - Liberty is under constant attack. Last week, we heard something which we are becoming much too accustomed to. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced that excise duties on alcoholic beverages and tobacco products were to increase with immediate effect, adding 9c to the price of a 340ml can of beer, 68c to a packet of 20 cigarettes, and R4.80 to a bottle of whisky.
These impositions on items associated with calming, relaxing and pleasurable pastimes are dead in line with the strong international inclination for stronger measures to be introduced – all in the interest of helping or forcing us to protect our health. Measures that, when implemented indiscriminately, increasingly infringe upon our personal individual rights.
In this year’s World Cancer Report, published by the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and released on World Cancer Day, regulators are urged to consider controlling alcohol and sugar consumption along the same lines as the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), as part of its recommended cancer prevention strategy.
According to IARC, The World Cancer Report 2014 “provides a unique global view of cancer, including cancer patterns, causes, and prevention”. IARC director and co-editor of the report, Dr Christopher Wild, states: “Despite exciting advances, this report shows that we cannot treat our way out of the cancer problem. More commitment to prevention and early detection is desperately needed in order to complement improved treatments and address the alarming rise in cancer burden globally.”
In 2005, South Africa ratified the WHO’s FCTC and committed itself to implementing the draconian measures to control tobacco use. We now have legislation that treats smokers as lepers.
It must be remembered that the WHO consists of unelected bureaucrats who are in no position to tell sovereign nations what they can and cannot do. Countries such as the US and Switzerland have chosen not to ratify the FCTC agreement, and others such as the Netherlands choose to ignore eight of the 14 FCTC “obligations”.
In 2010, the Dutch government took the decision to relax restrictions on tobacco control because it holds the position that smoking is a personal choice and that it is not the job of the government to protect the health of citizens or to force people to make healthy choices.
An FCTC shadow report stated: “The present Dutch government sees tobacco control as the most patronising form of policymaking (and the Dutch government feels that it) should not be a nanny to its citizens.” The Dutch government even cut its funding of mass media educational campaigns for tobacco control completely in 2011. The minister of health stated that because she was able to stop smoking without treatment and because smokers save money when they stop smoking, smokers should pay for their own treatment.
South Africa’s Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, on the other hand, has indicated that he is quite willing to trample on people’s freedoms by introducing further new regulations and legislation relating to the control of “unhealthy habits”.
In addition to tobacco, these are likely to include reducing the amount of salt and fatty acids in food and banning alcohol advertising. Motsoaledi justifies these intended actions by claiming “we are not doing this because we are a nanny state, but because we are concerned about the health of the nation”.
In pursuance of this stated aim by the minister, Professor Melvyn Freeman, chief director of non-communicable diseases at the Department of Health, said a sugar tax was “an option that is being considered and we are assessing the evidence around this”.
Before analysing the merits (or lack thereof) of such a sugar tax, it is important to note the different types of taxes and why taxes are imposed. Broadly speaking, there are two types of taxes: direct and indirect taxes. Direct taxes, such as personal and company taxes, are paid directly to the government. Indirect taxes are collected on behalf of the state by intermediaries, such as retail outlets, and paid over to the government at a later date. The most common example of indirect taxation is VAT.
Most indirect taxes are stealthily applied to only certain goods and services. Some people are not even aware that their purchases of these goods include tax. These taxes are typically referred to as “soft taxes” because they can be easily imposed by the government without the public knowing about them. Prime examples are fuel levies and the so-called sin taxes levied on alcohol and tobacco products.
Taxes are imposed for two reasons: to raise revenue for government coffers; or to raise the price of certain goods or services so as to reduce the demand for them. Proponents of sin taxes believe that certain goods are bad for consumers and thus argue that they should be taxed in order to raise their prices and deter people from consuming them.
Taxing sugar and other “sinful products” is a blunt instrument that, besides treating adults like children, diverts attention from the government’s insatiable appetite to control people’s lives and to raise revenue by any means possible.
The unhealthy appetite belongs not to those consumers of sugar, but the taxer. If you are an individual concerned about your health, take charge of your own life – don’t shrug off your personal responsibilities and entrust your health care to a non-existent collective. There is no such thing as “public health”.
Better health outcomes can only be achieved by individuals taking charge of their own lives.
A tax on sugar will erode further our personal freedoms.
Yesterday it was tobacco, today it may be sugar and salt, tomorrow it could be government-imposed restrictions on how loud you play your iPod or car radio; how close you sit to your television; in time it will be how long you should be out in the sun and, even, who you may or may not sleep with.
The choices will no longer be yours to make – all in the name of your health.
* Temba Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.