The well-being of a country should be measured in terms of its weight, as well as its gross domestic product

The well-being of a country should be measured in terms of its weight, as well as its gross domestic product

In the modern era, GDP has become a measure of a country’s well-being. If the economy is growing, then things are bound to be fine. If it shrinks, not much. Using GDP to measure how well we are doing is increasingly at odds with reality.

The main problem with growth is that it requires endless production, its close accompaniment, and endless consumption. To prevent stunted growth, we need to buy more and more things and more and more paid experiences. For economies to continue to “grow,” we need insatiable consumption.

We know in our hearts that consumption is mindless madness. We eat mounds of food that puts us at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. We buy things we didn’t know we wanted and would never use them again. We know tools have parts that are irreplaceable when they break down, so the only option is to throw them out and buy new ones.

Another problem with economic growth is that its rewards are not shared equally. Average income is calculated by taking the size of a country’s economy and dividing it by the number of people living there. This is very misleading. If a large proportion of wealth is created at 1%, as is the case in many rich countries, many people are left to work harder and harder to maintain their living standards and end up wondering why this growth.

verb balancing

The Tax Commission’s report, Foundations for the Future, attempts to address this balance — not immediately but over the medium to long term. Specifically, it addresses the promotion of commercial and economic activity while at the same time equitably supporting the most vulnerable groups in society and reducing carbon emissions.

Social cohesion – an idea that all groups of society feel connected to one another and to one community – is a major theme, noting that the older and younger generations have an equal share of the state’s resources.

Carbon emissions must be reduced in a way that maintains social cohesion. Crucially, this means that there must be a ‘fair transition’ where every group in the society is supported to make the required changes.

With regard to public health, the commission was specifically tasked with examining “the efficacy of promoting good health in Ireland and introducing relevant reforms to advance and catalyze this objective”.

Taxes that promote public health are levied on products that have a negative public health impact, such as tobacco, alcohol, and sugary drinks. The Commission has been particularly supportive of the WHO-recommended sugar-sweetened beverage tax introduced in Ireland in 2018. It raised the tax 33 million euros in 2019.

Sugary drinks tax

In terms of health gains, taxes on sugary drinks are effective in reducing consumption and preventing obesity. Evidence suggests that a tax on sugary drinks, which raises prices by 20%, could reduce consumption by about 20%. Research published in the British Medical Journal indicated that people have been buying and consuming less sugar from soft drinks since the tax was introduced in 2018. And while overall sales of sugary drinks remained unchanged, the sugar purchased in these drinks decreased by about 30 grams per household in week, or approximately 10% – the equivalent of three teaspoons less. This may not sound like much but from a public health perspective, it is important.

The tax was effective in reducing consumption of drinks high in sugar, but it also spurred reformulation to reduce the amount of sugar in soft drinks so that they fall into the category of drinks — less than 5g of sugar per 100ml — that don’t require taxes.

The tax works just as intended, suggesting its use should be expanded in terms of strategic regulatory options to promote healthy diets, according to researchers at the George Institute for Global Health.

In Ireland, all proceeds from the sugary drinks tax went to the Treasury, unlike the UK, which specifically targeted its sugar tax to fund sports and breakfast clubs.

The World Health Organization projects that the population of Ireland will be one of the world’s most overweight by 2030. With one in four children and two in three adults being overweight, obesity is at an unacceptably high level. These rates have changed little in recent years, despite evidence-based healthy eating and awareness programs. Obesity rates are significantly higher in lower-income groups and individuals living in deprived areas, with half of people under 35 years of age being overweight or obese compared to 37% of those living in affluent areas.

The lifetime cost of obesity is 4.6 billion euros and has a significant impact on the labor market, affecting early retirement, absenteeism and productivity.

The main risk factors for obesity include the environment, access to healthy and affordable food, physical activity, exercise and recreational activity, and education. All of these factors are influenced by living in a deprived area where food environments are consistently shown to encourage the consumption of unhealthy foods – ultra-processed, energy-dense, nutrient-poor, heavily promoted and easily accessible foods.

Ultra-processed foods

Almost half of Irish shopping baskets contain ultra-processed foods, making Ireland the third largest consumer of these foods after the United Kingdom and Germany. Ireland has the highest prevalence of consumption of sweet and savory snacks and the second highest consumption of sweets among the 24 countries in the European Union and the United Kingdom, and dietary intake of ultra-processed foods is a major driver of overweight and obesity.

Ireland’s Food Reframing Roadmap (2021) states that there is a “clear and urgent need to achieve further significant reductions in salt, sugar, saturated fat, calorie density and/or portion size per serving across a wide range.” “.

Voluntary salt and sugar reduction targets in the UK in recent years have yielded limited results and could have the effect of delaying more substantial strategies to phase out more harmful products altogether. The impact of the sugary drinks tax on industry reformulation, given its mandatory application, is a potential benefit of introducing a similar tax on ultra-processed foods—both in terms of sugar, salt and fat content but also in portion size of sweet and savory snack products.

The committee recommends a tax on ultra-processed foods in the interest of public health. Amid the cost of living crisis, this is unlikely to be introduced soon. When this is the case, to maximize the benefit, particularly of the most vulnerable, the huge incomes that this tax will generate should be restricted to support healthy eating and physical activity initiatives, especially for young children living in disadvantaged and low-income areas.

Taxes play a major role in raising revenue – so is their ability to influence public health outcomes. Evidence shows that Ireland is falling behind international best practice to implement policies that address the promotion of unhealthy foods to children and the use of fiscal policies to support healthy food choices and food composition goals. Fiscal policies that challenge the unhealthy food environment present an opportunity to address this shortfall. The funds generated should be earmarked to benefit the most vulnerable.

Dr. Catherine Conlon is a Cork-based public health practitioner and former Director of Human Health and Nutrition, Safefood

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