Should the UK introduce a tax on sugar?

An assortment of liquorice allsorts sweets.

by Stacey Dingwall

Recent months have seen two enquiries to our Ask a Researcher service for evidence on sugar consumption in the UK. Namely: should this be taxed?

Sugar has become somewhat of a villain in the UK, with magazine articles, research and governments all telling us that we should be greatly reducing, or even eradicating completely, our consumption of added sugars in particular. The week beginning 30th of November even saw the first National Sugar Awareness Week, part of a campaign to encourage the government to establish a sugar reduction programme in the UK. However, is a ‘sugar tax’ really necessary?

Sugar consumption: a public health issue?

According to the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), absolutely. Last month, they published a review of how to tackle obesity in the UK, which included the introduction of a sugar tax. The report notes that, according to the latest forecasts, half of all adults in the UK are expected to be classed as obese by 2050. Key to reversing this trend, it is argued, is to tackle issues around diet and nutrition among children, who are now spending double the amount of time per day in front of screens than children in 1995 (something that has been shown to increase cravings for food and drink, but not for nutritionally sound items). Alongside other developed nations, the UK is also seeing an ever increasing rate of consumption of high-sugar carbonated drinks.

While the RSPH recommends placing restrictions, or ending, the use of advertising and sponsorship by junk food and drinks companies around family and sporting events, it also argues that this is not enough to tackle the country’s obesity problem. The RSPH supports the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks of 20%, or 20p per litre. Their report highlights evidence which suggests that this could prevent or delay around 200,000 cases of obesity per year, and points to the experience of Mexico, who introduced a tax of 10% at the start of 2014. During that year, sales of sugary drinks declined by 6% overall, and by 9% among those living in the most deprived areas of the country (the demographic group most likely to be obese).

What does the government think?

After a delay, the UK government published Public Health England’s (PHE) review of the evidence for action with regards to sugar reduction in October. The report:

  • agrees that too much sugar is consumed in the UK
  • favours a reduction in advertising to children
  • recommends the introduction of a tax on full sugar soft drinks of 10-20%

This, combined with a range of other measures, it is argued, could save the NHS £500 million per year. The PHE recommendation was also supported by the House of Commons Health Committee, in their recently published Childhood obesity – brave and bold action report. Having heard evidence from parties including Sustain and Jamie Oliver, a key figure in the campaign for the introduction of a sugar tax, the Committee recommended that such a levy should be introduced at 20%, in order to achieve maximum impact.

The Prime Minister, however, is still not convinced, stating that he believes there are “more effective” ways of tackling obesity. The government is due to publish a strategy on childhood obesity in the New Year.

What does the evidence say?

A number of countries have implemented a form of taxation on sugar or saturated fats. These include:

  • a tax on saturated fats in Denmark
  • Finland’s tax on sweets, ice cream and soft drinks
  • Hungary’s public health product tax
  • France’s tax on sugar- and artificially-sweetened beverages

According to a review of using price policies such as these to promote healthier diets by the World Health Organization, food pricing policies are feasible, and can influence consumption and purchasing patterns as intended, with a significant impact on important dietary and health-related behaviour. Crucially, however, the same review notes a lack of formal evaluation in this area.

A report published earlier this year by the activist group Taxpayers’ Union of New Zealand, Fizzed out: why a sugar tax won’t curb obesity,  questioned the validity of nutrition related taxes. Reviewing the experience of Mexico, they suggested that the reduction in consumption of sugary drinks following the introduction of an excise tax of one peso per litre in January 2014 had been overplayed.

It’s also the case that the Danish tax on saturated fats was repealed by the government after only one year. This was due to a number of economic impacts that quickly became apparent after the tax was implemented, and resulted in plans for similar taxes to be abandoned. In fact, fat consumption in Denmark has been on a downward trend for some time now, therefore no tax incentive was required. And according to the Danish minister of finance, “to tax food for public health reasons [is] misguided at best and may be counter‐productive at worst”.

Whether the UK Prime Minister will be swayed on this matter remains to be seen. It’s likely that a ‘sugar tax’ will continue to be deemed too politically sensitive to introduce, especially as one in five people continue to live below the poverty line.


Related reading
Child obesity: public health or child protection issue?

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Child obesity – public health or child protection issue?

By Heather Cameron

The issue of childhood obesity is in the spotlight again. Just weeks after the Channel 4 series Junk food kids: who’s to blame? highlighted shocking stories of children having gained several stones in weight and children as young as four with rotten teeth, a new study reveals that parents rarely spot obesity in their children.

The results of the survey, given to nearly 3,000 families, showed that nearly a third, 31%, of parents underestimated the weight of their child. It would therefore be fair to say, as highlighted by one of the researchers, that “if parents don’t recognise a child is obese then they’re very unlikely to do anything to help their child move to a more healthy weight. Then it’s a potential major public health crisis being stored up.”

Obesity experts have called for stricter rules on the advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks in a bid to help address this public health issue. And the public would seem to support this, according to a recent poll, which revealed that almost two-thirds of Britons surveyed want a ban on junk food TV ads until after the watershed.

But is the childhood obesity epidemic just a public health issue?

There has been a high degree of contention for some time over whether obesity should also be considered a child protection concern. Numerous news reports have questioned whether children should be taken into care if they are considered obese and potentially at risk of harm.

Just last year it was reported that up to 74 morbidly obese children in the UK were estimated to have been taken into care over the previous five years, according to figures obtained under Freedom of Information laws.

Prior to this, an article from Protecting Children Update that looked at physical abuse in children highlighted obesity as a form of abuse, suggesting that many professionals see obesity as a form of neglect.

Similarly, the researchers of a much cited paper published in The BMJ in 2010 – When does childhood obesity become a child protection issue?argue that parents who refuse to help their overweight children to lose weight are neglectful. They say that whilst obesity alone is not a child protection issue:

consistent failure to change lifestyle and engage with outside support indicates neglect… childhood obesity becomes a child protection concern when parents behave in a way that actively promotes treatment failure in a child who is at serious risk from obesity.”

The report raises questions over how obesity should be addressed in terms of child protection, however, noting that there is evidence that families of obese children were being unfairly accused of abuse where rare genetic conditions were involved. It also suggests that removing obese children from their parents may in fact make matters worse.

With a lack of published evidence and guidelines for professionals, the report therefore suggests the following framework for action:

  • Childhood obesity alone is not a child protection issue
  • Failure to reduce overweight alone is not a child protection concern
  • Consistent failure to change lifestyle and engage with outside support indicates neglect, particularly in younger children
  • Obesity may be part of wider concerns about neglect or emotional abuse
  • Assessment should include systemic (family and environmental) factors

There is certainly no room for complacency, considering the knock-on effect the failure to recognise obesity could have on the nation’s health, not to mention health and social care services.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on public health and social care topics, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Some resources may only be available to Idox Information Service members.

Overcoming obesity: changing hearts and minds, IN Community Practitioner, Vol 87 No 3 Mar 2014, pp16-18

Process evaluation outcomes from a global child obesity prevention intervention, IN BMC Public Health, Vol 14 No 757 2014

The inactivity time bomb: the economic cost of physical inactivity in young people (CEBR, 2014)

Preventing child obesity: a long-term evaluation of the HENRY approach, IN Community Practitioner, Vol 83 No 7 Jul 2013, pp23-27

Is obesity a child protection issue?, IN Community Care, No 1833 2 Sep 2010, pp16-17

Public Health Information Network for Scotland (PHINS) – 14th Seminar

Image of outside of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

Image by Neil Turner under Creative Commons License, via Flickr

By Steven McGinty

On the 10th October I attended an annual event organised by the Scottish Public Health Observatory (ScotPHO) in the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. The event focused on health inequalities and the factors driving them. It brought together individuals from a variety of areas, including academia, public health organisations, local and central government, and the voluntary sector to review current evidence, highlight upcoming research and debate key issues with fellow professionals. Continue reading

World Alzheimer’s Day: can we reduce dementia risk?

Older woman with Alzheimer's in a chair

Image courtesy of Flickr user Vince Alongi using a Creative Commons license

By Steven McGinty

On the 21st September, Alzheimer’s organisations across the world will be carrying out events to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s and dementia. The event, a key part of World Alzheimer’s Month, was launched by Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) in 1994, with the aim of highlighting the tremendous work carried out by Alzheimer’s organisations.

Each year, a new theme is selected for World Alzheimer’s Month, and this year the focus will be on how we can reduce the risks of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. In support of this event, I’ve decided to look at some of the statistics on dementia, as well as review the latest evidence on reducing the risks.

Continue reading

How should we address loneliness and social isolation among older people?

For elderly men sitting on a bench

Image courtesy of http://goo.gl/A8ykMA using a Creative Commons licence.

By Steven McGinty

“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted, is the most terrible poverty“– Mother Teresa

Yet, for many older people, loneliness and social isolation are the normal state of affairs. A recent study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 34% of people aged 52 and over felt lonely often or sometimes, with this figure reaching 46% for people aged 80 or over. Rather worryingly, a report by Age UK also suggested that over half of older people consider the television as their main source of company.

In many respects, these figures may not be too surprising, with some arguing that this is simply the by-product of changing societal attitudes. Conversely, it could also be said that these changes are a response to the demands of busy modern life. For example, a report published by the Royal Voluntary Service highlights that, because of uncertainty in the job market, many children have to move away from their parents for work reasons. The impact of this is that many older people are seeing their families less and less, with 48% of parents only seeing their children once every two to six months. Continue reading