News Ticker

Pound the table

There’s an old legal saying that goes something like, “When the facts are on your side, pound on the facts; when the law is on your side, pound on the law; when neither are on your side, pound on the table.”

We’ve heard a lot of table-pounding in response to our discussion of sugar taxes in Jenesa’s report. Most of it points out that we’re a member-based organisation and darkly hints that member interests guided our pens.

John Roughan’s column this week is very much on point.

If you wonder why social research never produces unexpected results like real science, so do I. Be that as it may, the researchers share their findings in academic journals and convinced of its importance they march fearlessly out of their faculty into the public domain.

There, something strange happens. They are lionised by the media. Public health campaigns make compelling news because they challenge things we really like, such as sugar, junk food, alcohol. We already knew these were naughty but, goodness, look at the damage on a social scale. The press and public eat up these research findings but, oddly, governments generally don’t.

Or at least, governments often don’t act on it in the way the public health campaign prescribes. They may give the campaign more finance for public “education” against excessive consumption of the stuff but governments are strangely reluctant to bring their powers of regulation and taxation to bear, especially taxation.

This is strange because there is seldom much genuine public debate about the evils of the sweet, fatty or intoxicating treats in question.

Manufacturers and distributors of them may attempt to question the case against them, or at least the solutions proposed, but their arguments are easily dismissed as vested interest. In fact the more the industry tries to engage in a debate, the more it reinforces the suspicion – strenuously promoted by public health campaigns – that the Government has sold out to the industry’s insidious efforts behind the scenes, probably for election donations. Why else, the campaigners ask, would rational people fail to do everything in their power to improve public health?

Well, I can think of a reason but I’m running a risk in advancing it, because health campaigners are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause they can only conclude that anybody who questions it also has a vested interest. I’m constantly surprised how quickly these people, who must be good-natured, public-spirited, socially responsible and intellectually stimulated, play the man, not the ball.

The first thing they do when challenged is to call into question the challenger’s motive. If the person works for a think tank that is privately funded it will almost certainly have the relevant industry among its sponsors. Expose that and health professions see no need to address the argument. Their own reliance on grants awarded for research that tends to reinforce an institutional view is, in their view, not the same thing.

Read the whole thing. He also notes the importance of maintaining a clean tax system. I agree entirely.

About Eric Crampton (88 Articles)
I'm Head of Research with the New Zealand Initiative.

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