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.
Child obesity: public health or child protection issue?
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