The Blog

Predicting a Sugar Tax Blowback

George Osborne pulled yet another budget-related rabbit from the famous red suitcase last month. After a cunicular living wage hike and stamp duty reform in the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor's newest furry friend is a sugar tax on fizzy drinks. Cue a jig of delight on the Parliament Square by celebrity chef and long-term healthy eating campaigner Jamie Oliver.

However satisfied Osborne's actions leave both the anti-obesity lobby and health authorities, this ruling could have unexpected consequences. Telling people what they should and shouldn't do or, in this case, can and cannot eat and drink is risky. There is a history of this kind of intervention in people's everyday lives engendering unpredictable and resistant behaviours amongst certain pockets of consumers.

"Blowback" as a result of what some see as nanny-state intervention is almost an inevitability, irrespective of how sensible the policy may seem. We have already seen an example of collective resistance to public health initiatives in the case of the 'anti-vax' movement. This is a loosely organised community of people reflexively opposed to the use of vaccines, particularly for children. Anti-vaxxers' arguments include conspiracy theories that governments and big pharma are acting opportunistically or, more insidiously, are out to cull the earth's human population. Others believe modern vaccinations are responsible for a wide range of health problems. This theory gained traction after discredited claims that autism spectrum disorders in children are linked to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. There are also those who are ignorant of the risks of refusing vaccinations for their children.

Another example of state intervention blowback is the anti-environmentalists and global warming deniers believed to constitute factions within the 'rolling coal' subculture. Predominantly limited to North America, 'rolling coal' motoring enthusiasts engineer their vehicles - normally diesel trucks - to produce conspicuous plumes of thick, black exhaust smoke. While the movement has existed for some time, it gained traction amongst conservatives in protest to the Obama administration's energy policy, particularly new emissions regulations.

So are pockets of the British public capable of exercising a similar rebellion against the government's sugar tax? In 2006, we saw what were dubbed 'junk-food mums' passing unhealthy food through school fences to their children in response to Jamie Oliver's School Dinners campaign. Will we now see a parental backlash of mums and dads insisting on the inclusion of 7up or Fanta in their children's packed lunches? Or could we see more extreme and conspicuous displays amongst young consumers analogous to 'rolling coal'? Perhaps a 'fizzy pride' movement? Will youths chugging two litre bottles of cola in protest be the next ice bucket challenge-esque social media sensation? Or will resistance be more innocuously limited to disgruntled tweets and Facebook statuses? Perhaps we'll see a passive aggressive spike in sales of sugary milk-based drinks which are exempt from the new levy? Or perhaps, contrarily, a full-scale boycott of fizzy drinks?

More likely is the continued growth of post-ironic establishments that pride themselves on the amount of sugar their food contains. Back across the pond, this concept manifests in the growing trend for in-house eating challenges and novelty eateries. Las Vegas' Heart Attack Grill prides itself on the over blown calorie-count of its meals. Its signage proudly declares: 'Caution: This Establishment is Bad for your Health'. At the diner, punters can order a "quadruple bypass burger" burger with 20 rashers of bacon with a side of "flatliner fries" deep fried in pure lard. Customers eat for free if they are over 350 lbs (25 stone).

Although this is an extreme example, subtler attempts to rebel against 'the state's' public health diktats are popping up in the UK. Black Milk Cafe in Manchester attracted attention last year for selling a close to 4000-calorie breakfast containing an estimated 100 teaspoons of sugar. Comprising two types of cereal, a chocolate brownie, marshmallows, Creme Egg, mini eggs and M&M's, topped off with salted caramel sauce and served in half a chocolate Easter egg, the platter is accompanied by three different flavoured milks.

Elsewhere in the UK, equally caloric menu items have developed cult-like appeal amongst consumers, such as the "Kidz Breakfast" (estimated 6000 calories, marketed as weighing the same as a small child) at Jesters Diner in Southtown, Great Yarmouth and the "Two-Foot Sausage Roll"(estimated 3,600 calories) at the County Arms restaurant in South London.

Although these establishments do not necessarily use their dishes' calorie-count as a selling point, their very presence clearly refuses to succumb to pressure for a healthier UK.

Of course, unlike the anti-vaxxers and rolling-coalers who dispute scientific evidence which undermines their arguments, few in the UK would deny obesity is a growing health crisis. Rising levels of child obesity, type two diabetes and heart disease are regularly splashed across the headlines. But will the latest sugar tax be part of the solution or will contrary consumers bite their collective thumbs at Jamie and his jigs? Only time will tell.