The French Soda-Refill Ban: the Bitter Taste of Regulation

This article is a contribution to an essay contest organised by Vilnius Students for Liberty. Information on how to participate (until April 17th) can be found here.

In January 2017, the French Parliament passed a bill that effectively banned free soda-refills in restaurants, in an attempt to tackle obesity. Where will its efforts lead us to?

Rest assured, if living in France has confirmed one of my stereotypes, then it’s that you eat well. The République upholds culinary hedonism, and there are indeed health-related effects to this mindset: between 1997 and 2009, the obesity level has risen from 8.5 to 14.5 per cent. In 2016, Le Monde reports that the amount of obese people has risen to over 15.5 per cent, with 25.3 per cent of women and 41 per cent of men being generally overweight.

In order to tackle this situation, consecutive governments have suggested and implemented large-scale government intervention. A Right or Left divide is missing completely in this Nanny-State policy, as the so-called soda tax was introduced by centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy, only to be raised by following socialist governments. The initial tax constituted €7.53 on 100 litres of soda, being 2.51 cents for a can of 33 centilitres. One might suggest that this is steeped in irony, considering that while being part of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, France is also subsidising sugar.

France’s debt to GDP is closing in on 100 per cent, unemployment is at 10 per cent (with youth unemployment double that rate). The corporate tax rate is at a staggering 33.3% as of this year (8+% over the OECD average and 11+% over the EU average). If you then add the strong trade union presence, strikes, and workers’ protections that can get you prosecuted for years to come if you lay them off, then it seems a bit odd that the government believes that François from the petrol station who wants a second Coke with his Big Mac menu is the problem.

The free soda-refill policy was new to France in the early 2010’s, when several fast-food chains, including the Belgian company Quick and the American chicken fast-food KFC, tried to compete with McDonald’s by offering refills with their menus. The companies were counting on attracting families who’d only order one drink and pass it around in an attempt to save money.

Interestingly enough, this law has been met with little to no opposition in the media or public discourse. While there have been differences between companies in terms of when they dismantled the machines (some doing so immediately, while others kept the free soda until the bittersweet end), there was no real debate about whether or not this law makes sense to begin with. Reason for that is the incredible mass of legislative nonsense that is dumped on everyday people in France already: there just isn’t enough time for everyone to go through jungle of regulatory waste; and as a result, this law has passed unmarked.

After banning ads for tanning beds, soda dispensers in schools, plastic cups and TV ads featuring smiling children with Down Syndrome (because it might make women uncomfortable who aborted their children because of them having DS), nothing really seems off-limits anymore.

Now the question for those who value pragmatism above freedom is obviously: will the soda-refill ban make people healthier? And there is no definitive answer to that question. If the need for the consumption for soft drinks remains stable, then people will still buy the drinks in their local stores and drink them at home.

A first clue is offered by the example of Denmark, which introduced a special fat tax on consumption goods, only to repeal the bill (with the same majority) 15 months later. What had happened? Not only was the tax an additional burden on people with low incomes, it also incentivised consumers to downgrade to cheaper products in the supermarket (while maintaining their consumptions of fats), leading to no impact on health and minor impact on consumption overall.

Instead of falling into the same Nanny-State trap of over-regulating that which is bound to not wanting to be regulated, namely personal preferences, France should choose the road of liberty. Adults can make informed choices about their own lives, and even if those choices might not be the MOST informed ones in the case of every individual, they remain superior to the uninformed choice of a privileged few at the top.

And if so much government intervention threw you off, wash it down with some soda.

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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