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Do the Criticisms of a Sugar Tax Stack Up?

18/04/2016 15:49 | Updated 19 April 2016

It's been almost a month since George Osborne announced a soft drinks levy in the Budget. While the measure remains popular with the public, some have challenged the principle or approach to taxing sugary drinks. But do the criticisms stack up? Here, representing the Obesity Health Alliance, I set straight seven of the common myths and criticisms...

Myth #1: A sugary drinks tax will penalise the poor: Rather than being penalised, the poorest stand to benefit the most. Sugary drink consumption levels tend to be highest among the most disadvantaged children who are hit hardest by obesity and tooth decay. The health gains from the sugar tax will be biggest for people on low incomes.

Myth #2: Similar taxes have not worked abroad: Extensive evidence from around the world shows that taxes on sugary drinks do work. In Mexico, a one peso per litre sugary drinks tax (a 10% price increase) led to a 12 per cent drop in consumption overall, and 17 per cent drop in consumption among lower income households. In Hungary, a tax on sugary products led 40 per cent of manufacturers to reduce or eliminate sugar to avoid the tax. Sugar tax opponents also incorrectly claim that "taxation didn't work in Denmark". Denmark's tax was on fat, not sugar, and although poorly implemented and short lived, it did reduce consumption.

Myth #3: Sugar consumption is already falling, so a tax isn't needed: This overall trend doesn't change the fact that we are consuming too much sugar and this is contributing to the obesity crisis. Alarmingly, some children are consuming as much as six times the maximum recommended amount of added sugar. Soft drinks are the single biggest contributor to children's sugar intake in the UK, representing almost a third of 11-18 year olds' daily sugar consumption.

Myth #4: A soft drinks tax is pointless as it excludes other sources of sugar: The difference between soft drinks and other sources of sugar is that products like cake or chocolate are viewed by most as a 'treat'. Sugary soft drinks, which have no nutritional value and are full of empty calories, are not viewed as treats and many people consume them as a regular part of their daily diet. For children and teens, soft drinks are the single biggest contributor of added sugar in their diets. A single can of soft drink can contain up to nine teaspoons of sugar, nearly double the maximum daily recommended added sugar intake for a 10 year old child.

Myth #5: A sugary drinks tax will lead to higher consumption of other sugar products:
This is a flawed argument. Similar to myth #4, most people don't think of soft drinks as 'treats' like they do for other sugary snacks. People who drink high volumes of soft drinks are not doing so instead of eating other sugary snacks, so it's unlikely they would swap chocolate or cake for a soft drink. It is much more plausible that we will see a substitution effect to other low or no calorie drinks or to water.

Myth #6: The tax will cost more money to implement than the revenue gained: A sugar tax would actually save us money. Obesity is one of the biggest drains on the NHS and the economy as a whole. One estimate suggests that obesity costs the UK economy £27 billion and the NHS £5 billion a year. High levels of sugar consumption are contributing to soaring rates of obesity, which is a major risk factor for many serious health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Tackling the root causes of obesity, through a sugar tax, has the potential to bring about huge cost savings.

Myth #7: A sugar tax is an example of the nanny state going too far: The Government has a duty of care to its citizens, particularly children, and to encourage an environment that promotes health not disease. A sugary drinks tax is a simple but powerful way of helping children consume less sugar and stay healthy. And this is why it is supported by the public with nearly seven in ten (69 per cent) people supporting the new tax on soft drinks after it was announced.

While a sugar tax should help to improve the public's health, it is only one measure, and we shouldn't be tempted to see it as a stand-alone cure for the increasing rates of obesity that we face. It is essential that we take a comprehensive approach, which is why we are calling for the Government to introduce a strong and robust childhood obesity strategy that includes a range of evidence-based measures.

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