Tuesday 23 January 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Tackle 'white death' by using sugar tax money to invest in sport

Successive governments have treated sport in the country’s schools as a sort of optional extra rather than a core element of everyday life. Photo: David Maher.
Successive governments have treated sport in the country’s schools as a sort of optional extra rather than a core element of everyday life. Photo: David Maher.
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

George Osborne showed a bit of leadership last week. No, he is not a player with a weaker county, nor is he a GAA official. He is Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain or the equivalent of the Minister for Finance on this side of the big river. And Osborne signalled that a sugar tax will be introduced in two years; it is estimated that it will yield about £500m and this money will be ring-fenced for sport in schools.

This move has been described as a shock in many quarters. Isn't it amazing how politicians doing the right thing can be described as a shock? One would feel that elected officials of State should always be trying to act in the common good. In this country the smoking ban was the greatest example ever of a decision which has been good for everyone except the tobacco companies.

Why could NAMA, for example, not be told by our ministers to do their job in the same way?

For a start they could sell off individual housing and apartment units so people like those in Tyrellstown who could have bought them at a discount price. Why is it better to sell everything to foreign hedge funds rather than our own citizens? Why can NAMA - as it is authorised to do - not sell blocks of land at lower rates to sports organisations rather than these same vulture funds who are holding ordinary people to ransom? If the agency wants to contribute to solving the housing crisis it should stop selling to these funds, who will just hold on to their assets until prices go through the roof and then sell back to the poor Paddies. That, in contrast to George Osborne, can be called a complete lack of leadership.

Now that Osborne has taken the lead on the sugar tax, all our politicians have to do is directly copy the British model and similar measures which are already in place in the Scandanavian countries, France, Belgium, Hungary and Mexico. Mayor Bloomberg tried to do something similar in New York but it was overturned in the Court of Appeal in 2014. The New York example is just to show that governments must be willing and able to take on big business as they react with venom when profits are threatened.

A can of cola can have up to nine teaspoons of sugar in it and some have as much as 13. Some five-year-old children are consuming their bodyweight in sugar every year. This is leading to an increase in heart disease, type two diabetes, rotting teeth and obesity but this is the first time that the British have set their minds to start tackling the problem. Maybe it is because they are estimating that it is costing the health service about £5bn a year which has made them act but the delay in implementing it for two years is disappointing.

What it does do, though, is give us an opportunity to put the same tax in place straightaway and earmark the money for sport in schools. In Ireland, successive governments have treated sport in school as a sort of optional extra rather than a core element of everyday life. Sport should be as important as any other subject on the curriculum. In fact, I feel it should be given even greater importance as a healthy lifestyle in early years has bigger economic benefits than anything else in school.

Prevention is better than cure and a sugar tax in Ireland, judging on the British model, could yield as much as €50m a year to sport in schools. That would be a massive benefit to a healthy lifestyle among young people as well as an investment in sporting infrastructure. It would be particularly important to target most of this money on young people from poorer backgrounds as they are twice as likely to be obese because their dietary choices are not as health conscious as middle and higher income groups. The other reason to target this group for most of the investment is because the argument that will be used against this measure is that it is a tax on the poor.

The cost of a sugar tax is unlikely to be borne by the drinks companies so it will be passed on to the consumer. It will mean that drinks may go up by at least 20 cent a litre. If that financed a shake-up of sports facilities, education in sport and diet, and at the same time caused a reduction in consumption then it would be win-win. Except for Mr Sugary Drink and his stable of friends.

Some years ago I started to read an article in some paper which was headlined 'The white death'. I thought it was about cocaine but in fact it dealt with the damage that sugar in general was doing to the developed world. It is the silent killer and is being done with State acquiescence. Now at least our neighbours are doing something about it and it would be more than a little contradictory if Northern Ireland were enforcing this sugar tax and we were ignoring it.

Of course there are those who feel that this is more of Big Brother invading their space again. The 'right to choose' lobby will be pushed by the drinks companies. Well the battle has already been fought with the smoking ban and this one will be easier; a tax on chewing gum with the proceeds going to the local authorities for cleaning up is another one which should be in place. Not to mention the damage of alcohol abuse.

What has a sugar tax to do with the GAA, you might ask. The answer is: everything. Any investment in sport is good for the GAA. A greater emphasis in secondary schools in particular should involve both a practical and a theoretic side, with our national games being central to that. If that helps to bring more players on board or create an interest in young men and women becoming part of a club then everyone's a winner.

Albert Reynolds once said "who is afraid of peace?" It should be the same here. Who is afraid of a healthier society? Maybe in time all of these health measures will mean a big part of the population will live to be over 100! GAA grounds will then have to cater for more old people and many with three knee and five hip replacements. Maybe this is the reason why referees are allowing no physical contact anymore as they don't want grounds of the future staffed with carers looking after my generation of broken-down players.

Anyway that is a concern for another day. For now the GAA should be putting as much pressure as possible on all their former players and supporters who undoubtedly will be part of the next government no matter what colour it takes. Those politicians failed miserably with NAMA but this is an easier challenge. The three-legged stool can be balanced: more money for schools, less sugar and better facilities for exercise and enjoyment.

Time to tackle the white death.

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