As a pleasure seeker who understands the need to be conscious of my own mortality, I'm always looking for a reason to give something up, and Lent seems as good a reason as any. I'm not a Roman Catholic, but I do like the idea of a period of self-denial at this time of year, for health reasons if not for spiritual or religious purification. I don't lack for willpower, and last year I gave up alcohol for 11 months, an experiment in abstinence which came to an end in December with the combined assault of my birthday, a number of parties and, of course, Christmas. (I have since realised that my alcohol intake over the month probably equated to what most people drink in the course of a year.)
I don't smoke or eat red meat, so I was struggling over what to give up this Lent until I heard a radio phone-in responding to the proposal by the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, that the government should introduce a sugar tax to curb growing rates of obesity. It was hard to keep up with the random litany of statistics, but they all added up, in my view, to supporting Dame Sally's opinion. The UK consumes 5,727 million litres of sugary soft drinks every year. There are four teaspoons of sugar in a can of peas, and five teaspoons in a low-fat yoghurt. If 20p tax were added to a litre of soft drink, more than £1bn could be raised to be spent on health initiatives. Smoothies are the short cut to obesity. About 60 per cent of Britons are considered overweight or obese. And so on. I resolved that, this Lent, it was sugar that was going to get the boot.
I have eaten at enough restaurants in my time - and have the figure to prove it - to know that if something tastes good, it's usually for one of four, unadvertised, reasons - butter, salt, cream or sugar. So I realise my mission is going to be really tough, because sugar is the hidden persuader, and, according to Dame Sally, will be proven to be addictive. She says that a tax may be the most effective way of changing our eating and drinking regime. “We have normalised being overweight,” she said, while others in the medical profession say sugar is a dangerous, life-threatening drug.
The arguments against a tax on sugary products are familiar enough. For instance, this is a tax on the poorest people, and while there is a class dimension to this debate - the middle-class person who asks for two sugars in a cup of tea is regarded with as much astonishment as the one who strikes up a Marlboro at a dinner - this is where the Government comes in, legislating to change behaviour for the general betterment of society (treating diseases caused by unhealthy lifestyles costs the NHS £6 billion a year). The food and drink industry believes in education not legislation. People should be free to make their own choices, say libertarians.
Well, I've made my choice. I'm not going to wait until the Nanny State comes knocking. Here goes. Expect some bad-tempered columns over the next month.