Bitter-Sweet

Over the last couple of years there has been an increasing concern expressed about the hazards of consuming sugar. We are familiar with ‘sin’ taxes on tobacco and alcohol, so why not sugar? Countries such as Mexico and France already have taxes on sweet fizzy drinks, and the city of Berkeley in California voted to bring in a ‘soda tax’ from January this year.  

In fact sugar has a long history and association with duties, taxes and tariffs - although not with the modern desire to restrict consumption in mind. Back in the 1840s for example, newspaper articles were written about the importance of making such a popular product cheaper and more plentiful so more could enjoy it. The fact sugar also brought in substantial duties for the government was just another virtue.   

Since sugar was both highly taxed and expensive, it was common to adulterate it with a similar white substance or ‘daft’ - usually plaster of paris. In 1858 William Hardaker or “Humbug Willy” had a sweet stall in Bradford. He bought a supply of darker than usual peppermint humbugs made by a local confectioner to sell there one evening. The confectioner admitted in Court to regularly adding ‘daft’ to his sugar. But this time there was a mix up of the barrels of white powder. The result was the confectioner accidentally added 12 lbs of arsenic instead of ‘daft’ to his sweets.  

Even diluted with 40lb of sugar, the Court calculated that the resulting sweets individually contained enough arsenic to kill two people. The outcome of the Bradford Sweets Poisoning was that 20 people died and a further 200 were made ill, including the vendor Humbug Willy himself.

As well as confectioners, jam and preserve makers also use a lot of sugar. Founded in Dundee, James Keiller’s were famed for their marmalade. By the 1850s the business was in the hands of the third generation of Keillers, brothers Alexander and William. To reduce the costs of the import duties on sugar, the Keillers built a second factory in Guernsey in 1857 and William relocated to run it. It just goes to show that the idea of a company relocating to reduce their tax burden is not a new one.  

Gladstone abolished the duties in 1874 and the Keillers closed the Guernsey factory a few years later. They settled in Silverdown in the London Docklands about the same time as Henry Tate was setting up his sugar refinery. 

I haven't the space to discuss the really serious aspects of historic sugar duties. Sugar and its tariffs are connected with our colonial past, slavery and the slave trade, free-trade and protectionism. We still have a complex arrangement of import tariffs for sugar cane thanks to that history. But much EU sugar comes from EU-grown sugar beet and therefore overlaid on top of all that are tariffs and quotas from the Common Agricultural Policy.

Regardless whether or not we decide to tax sugar in the name of health, it’s just another process in a long history of refining and redefining our taxes.  

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