Sugar ban leaves sour taste

PLMR's Charlotte Watson discusses the meaning of the latest sugar ban

Opening the Guardian website last Thursday morning as is my daily routine, I registered with surprise my mixed feelings at the main headline. The news that the Government plans to ban the sale of energy drinks to children following an ongoing consultation has been roundly welcomed by all sections of the media, health practitioners and teachers’ organisations. But whilst I was reading, all I was reminded of was the way that some recent policy positions have targeted certain kinds of diet and by extension, certain demographics of people more than others.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that I believe the ban is a bad idea in practice. The statistics are certainly worrying: myriad reports, both domestic and international, have decried the effects of caffeine on children and young people, and the sugar content leads to issues with obesity, disruptive patterns of behaviour and reduced concentration. There have even been reports suggesting that sugar has the potential to alter neural pathways in a way similar to stimulants such as amphetamines.

What I take issue with instead is the implicitly class-based narrative that the recent reporting of energy drink bans, sugar taxes and obesity issues share. Inherent in the stereotypical media portrayal of the consumer demographic are several signifiers of poverty, and whilst there is arguably a public good in Governmental bodies taking action against sugar and fast foods, the ability for there to be moral good can unfortunately be obfuscated, hidden behind a narrative that often demonises marginalised groups of people.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal agrees on the possibility of taxing only certain sugary beverages (such as soft drinks but not blended caffeinated drinks available at coffee shops, a move seen both in the UK and Canada), and warns that: “economically advantaged people may continue to drink their frappuccino, untaxed, while less wealthy people are taxed for their cola, despite similar added sugar content”. This is framed as exacerbating an already existing landscape of stigma; furthering alienation and reducing the opportunities for meaningful, productive contact between policymakers and isolated demographics.

Frappuccinos and other similar drinks are beloved of an adolescent consumer cohort, many of which are available with two or more shots of coffee: highly sugared, highly caffeinated, highly priced, yet not highly criticised in the media. It’s obvious why – the affluent consumer is not the one within the sights of policymakers when they could instead target a demographic which is often without the resources to be able to respond.

One issue that often comes into play, and can affect whose views influence policymaking procedure, is that official consultation pathways are not always accessible to the groups that those policies affect. I attempted to fill out the ongoing Government consultation, and the first drop-down menu provides a clear sense of who is expected to participate: GP, health visitor, academic, nutritionist or business owner are all options. But if you’re a young person, a parent or guardian or social worker – in other words, someone who may have more insight into the social fabrics that create specific consumption patterns – you might not be able to conventionally share your views.

Surely this is at the core of the issue – these consumption patterns aren’t created in a vacuum. Alongside the proposed ban, we should also be asking why children are leaning so heavily on energy drinks and sugar, particularly children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Is it possible that their tiredness is caused by interrupted sleep patterns, parents who work unsociable shifts, having unsuitable environments in which to do homework? Is it possible that their reliance on sugar is due to its prominence in affordable, convenience foods used primarily by people who are time-poor, on low incomes or with disabilities? And the disruptive classroom behaviour and obesity issues solely attributed to diet – these are key indicators of food, fuel and housing poverty.

The Department for Health are obviously attempting some crucial reform of the way we think about public health. With their wide-reaching sugar reduction and childhood obesity plans, a link can be made between this and the Government’s 2016 renewal of commitment to improving life chances. After all, public health is a massive part of improving life chances, especially for the most disadvantaged demographics. It’s just a shame that the way in which it’s been framed excludes (and risks further marginalising) the people it’s meant to help the most.

It’s to be commended that work is being done to alter the influence of sugar and additives in our diets – after all, they have been shown to be the worst in Europe. But without understanding the reasons that people turn to energy drinks, high sugar products and fast food in the first place, the proposed ban is the legislative equivalent of a sticking plaster.

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