Tuesday, June 25, 2024


Dhaka Tribune


Prescribing a short and sweet life

Setting high taxes and restrictions on sugar will not alleviate the country of healthcare costs

Update : 28 Apr 2024, 10:11 AM

There are times when looking into politics from the outside -- you know this rational world out here rather than what they talk about in there -- can be somewhat confusing. For the things that are discussed, how they are discussed, even the evidence used underlying discussions, can be somewhat at odds with our reality out here.

One such confusion is the current discussion about sugar as reported in this newspaper. Apparently it should be taxed more highly, also domestic production should be encouraged, tax evasion cracked down upon and even, as the country becomes richer, everyone should eat less of that luxury product. 

There are a number of clashes there. Why politics is so perplexing and I say this as someone who has taken part (although, obviously, in another country). It just doesn't seem to be rational a lot of the time. 

One thing is true -- excessive consumption of sugar is not good for people. There's still an argument about whether it's the sugar itself or the getting fat from it (I go with the fat part, because we see the same effect if people get fat without sugar) that leads to diabetes and such deadly problems. Just as with nearly everything else, excess is not a good thing. 

However, that's about as far as we can get while still agreeing. It's possible to be like me and insist that if people want to die from popping too many sweets, well, it's their life to end in their way, right? It's also possible to insist they need to be saved from themselves. But what’s not possible is to insist that fewer diabetics will save the country, or the healthcare system, money. 

This is because it's simply not true. This has been studied at length and a number of times. Obesity, tobacco, alcohol, sure they all kill. Treating those diseases costs assuredly. But shorter lives mean that health care has to be offered for fewer years. The balance is thus arguable -- and when it's counted up the shorter lives, the fewer years, outweigh those disease costs. For we all die of something and we all get treated for what we die of before we do. People dying early because they have sugar saves the healthcare system money.   

Treating those diseases costs assuredly. But shorter lives mean that health care has to be offered for fewer years

But then in this case we have people going on, rather further. Spiralling off into that discussion that only politics can have. 

So, imagine, we decide that sugar is the problem. Ergo, people should eat less sugar … ok. Then we get people suggesting that Bangladesh imports nearly all its sugar. This isn't true, not in the slightest, as there's sugar in fruit, in milk, and so on. But added sugar is all imported. So now, the suggestion is that we should raise the import tax on sugar. At which point there will be -- again -- local production of sugar from sugar cane. We should even encourage this so this is our first political answer, that sugar is bad so we must make more at home. 

It carries on. It is noted that the current import taxes often seem to be avoided by bad people, cheating bad people, d'ye see? So, we should have more such taxes -- so that bad people can make more profit by cheating presumably. 

And on and on -- because sugar consumption is bad therefore we do have to tax it. So, we should have a special and new tax upon sugar itself. If it's in something we can consider bad -- like a cake. Should we have a new and special tax upon different uses of sugar within the country when we find it really difficult to impose that simple tax upon sugar entering the country? Because, obviously, the bad people won't make money by cheating on an internal setting in the country and easy to avoid tax, like they do on the simple and difficult-to-avoid import tax? 

The problem with this discussion is that it's missing the basic point about our world. It's a complicated place. Therefore complicated plans about it will not work. This is true of our societies, of our economies. Politics might have the most lovely fun in coming up with complex, complicated, plans for this or that. None of them will work. Partly because the world is complex. Another is because people will lie, cheat, steal, and otherwise take advantage of the rules. Finally, the really important reason is that because the world is a complex place, politics will never be able to analyze it properly to devise a plan that would be beneficial even if it could be made to work. 

But that's all to be complicated and complex, just like the politicians. 

Here's what these people are actually saying. They know how much sugar you should have in your tea. And they've got the power to do that and they're going to use it. Most of us have met a politician or two. Might be in parliament, might just be the local councillor, but we have met them. Now, who would trust them to work out how much sugar to put in their own tea? 


Tim Worstall is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London.

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