I’ve got a slightly secret, horrendously unhealthy and largely inexplicable addiction to Coke. Not the stuff you inhale through your nose, mind, but rather the sugary water stuff. I manage to limit my consumption to times when I’ve had a big run and can convince myself that my sugar reserves are sufficiently depleted to justify the hit. I don’t know what it is (likely the caffeine and sugar combo) but Coke just pushes all my buttons.
I’ve been thinking of Coke recently in the context of the regulation versus self-control debate. You see, I don’t blame the Coca-Cola company for my Coke habit. Absolutely I’ve been subliminally receiving their advertising my entire life and their sponsorship is plastered over sports events far and wide. But I’m also well aware of the perils of high-sugar diets, and what the ravages of Type 2 diabetes can do to people. I consume their product, with a very clear understanding of the ills it could do to me.
All things being equal, my predilection for Coke comes not from a bunch of extrinsic factors (ie “the man” pushing his poison onto me) but rather from an intrinsic appreciation for that awesome, excellent (and yet awful) refreshing liquid. I don’t blame the Coca-Cola company for creating the product, per se.
All of which makes me sound like one of those worryingly aggressive libertarians. You know the kind, the ones who are perennially wailing that we should let the market decide and that free will should have primacy. The ones who see individuals’ autonomy as being above all and see no place for the state in the lives of individuals. The ones who believe we should be able to do whatever we like, so long as it doesn’t affect others.
But high-sugar diets, alongside excess alcohol consumption and using tobacco products, have impacts beyond those on the consumer. Secondhand smoke is well known to be impactful on those exposed to it and as a firefighter, I know firsthand the impacts of excess alcohol consumption when it is paired with motor vehicle use. And, as taxpayers, we all fund a health system which is the metaphorical ambulance at the bottom of the cliff for the impacts of these consumptive decisions.
So where does the balance lie between central control (by way of disincentives or outright bans) and individual autonomy? What culpability does an individual have for their own decisions as opposed to simply blaming the proverbial “corporate man?”
Contrary to the Libertarian desire, I’m actually a firm believer in the concept of a sugar tax (and, for that matter, disincentives on the consumption of alcohol and tobacco). It seems to me that, while imperfect, where the market is pretty effective is when testing price elasticity of demand, that beautiful concept from Economics 101 that looks at how much demand decreases as price increases.
I’ve travelled in the developing world and seen smoking rates in countries where there is no tax on tobacco. I’ve also, as an aside, been incredulous that it’s cheaper to buy Coke in many of those countries than it is fresh water. One negative impact of The Market that we can probably all agree on.
So, yes, disincentives are all good, and a useful lever to pull to try and change consumer behaviour. But there is a big piece in their that talk purely about disincentives misses. I’ve written a bunch about what it means to be a member of society. I’ve bemoaned the fact that we all seem to have a really good grasp of our rights as citizens, but a far poorer understanding of the obligations that come with those rights. To put it simply, we (the communal we) are uneducated and have a poor understanding of the impacts of our consumption on our health, our communities and our systems.
And that’s the part we need to work on. Unless we all understand these things and make decisions taking into account a broader interest pool than simply our own selfishness, we will eternally be finding ambulances to position at the bottom of the cliff. Yes, the government needs to pull some leavers to encourage a change, but we all need to step up as well. That’s when we’ll make enduring progress.
Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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