Economy

Sweet! Upcoming Tax Scares UK Into Taking It Easy On Sugar

Beverage companies have responded to the planned tax by reducing the sugar content of their drinks.

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Richard Martyn-Hemphill

LONDON — Sugar hasn't just played its part in Britain's reputation for tea, cakes and bad teeth; it's also a major contributor to the country's obesity and diabetes crisis. A U.K. parliamentary briefing paper published last week lays it bare: Over a quarter of the population are now classified as obese — the second highest rate in Europe after Hungary and the sixth highest in the world. There are nearly 3.7 million diagnosed diabetics in the country, according to Diabetes U.K. Related costs to the National Health Service are in the ballpark of $200 million per week, pretty close to the amount the U.K. spends on its EU membership fee each week after rebates.

It's an issue you might think would weigh on the mind of Prime Minister Theresa May, herself a diabetic, though not a known sugar addict. In fact, May has been, at best, a part-time flagbearer for sugar intake reduction, having scrapped such a tax as one of her first moves in 2016, a cave-in to heavy industry pressure. That will hopefully change this April, when a tax on sugary products — announced last year by Chancellor Philip Hammond as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy — comes into effect.

The move has risks. Inflation, at around 3.6%, is running higher than the Bank of England would like, and the result could be more expensive food and drink at a time when people are feeling a pinch from rising prices and stagnant wages already. Nevertheless, even before the law comes through, producers are showing a willingness to slash their sugar inputs rather than fork out money for an additional tax.

Despite initial warnings that consumers would be faced with smaller cans and higher prices, Coca Cola recently announced a new range of low sugar options. Scottish soft-drink company Irn-Bru will no longer stock its original high-sugar recipe, supposedly known by just three people. Other drinks producers are making similar steps.

The tax is worth a try and other countries are bound to follow suit.

So after giving companies plenty of time to adjust, they did. This is a good example how fiscal policy can be used to cattle prod companies in the right direction. Still, the government should now go further, widening its scope to other types of sugary snacks.

Tax is just one part of this, and greater consumer awareness may yet change the game more than any fiscal intervention. Regulators also have every reason to be tougher on the use of synthetic sweeteners as replacements, which may bring other harmful side effects. Ironically, any successful reductions in sugar that companies make ahead of the tax mean a smaller tax intake than initial Treasury projections. What does come in will be fittingly allocated to the education ministry for spending on youth sport.

This will put the U.K. in the company of just a few nations willing that go for such a tax policy. Norway is another; it has had a similar tax in place since 1922, and cranked it up further at the start of this year. Largely hailed as a success story, keeping obesity low in this Nordic nation of fiercely successful Winter Olympians, it has also driven many Norwegians across the border to Sweden for their fix. Similarly, shops in the Republic of Ireland could well be stocking up, tempting the Northern Irish southwards with cheaper fizz.

Even so, the tax is worth a try and other countries are bound to follow suit. In 2014, the global population of diabetics reached 422 million, from 108 million back in 1980. Diabetes, of course, is not just an inconvenient ailment; in its worst form, it can cause blindness, kidney failure, limb amputation or cardiac arrest. Its prevalence means companies can expect more political pressure to act, including against sugar. In an age of populism, where demand is high for dramatic, simple and sudden fixes, it'll be better for companies to be on the side of the solution rather than the problem.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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