This article analyses the newly announced UK sugar tax and why it doesn’t live up to its expectations. It argues that without sufficient change to the tax or additional laws being introduced, it won’t have the impact many hope. Our nations over consumption of sugar is an incredibly important topic right now and is becoming somewhat of a national crisis with obesity levels continuing to grow each year.
George Osborne’s 2016 budget saw a wide variety of new key announcements from a forecasted £3.5billion in spending cuts to increased tax on cigarettes to plans for a longer school day. Yet, perhaps the most interesting introduction was the proposed sugar tax on fizzy drinks.
Although considered a surprise announcement it was received warmly by most of the public, even the opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, welcomed in the proposals. Many had been campaigning for the introduction for a tax levy for some time including the NHS Chief Executive, Simon Stevens and celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver. However, once you delve into the means of implementing the tax, it’s not quite as sweet as it would first seem.
First of all, what exactly is the sugar tax? It is a levy on the soft drink industry and will be officially introduced in two years’ time. It will apply to companies according to the amount of sugar-sweetened drinks they either produce or import, with the tax falling under two bands; one for sugar above 5 grams per 100 millilitres and the other for above 8 grams per 100 millilitres. Research suggests that it will see an increase between 18p and 24p per litre, dependent on what band the product falls under, and a total of £520 million annually which will be used for sport activities in primary schools (1).
Sounds like a great idea, right? There’s plenty of research to suggest it is too. One study published in January this year found that a 40% reduction in free sugars added to drinks over the course of five years could lead to 500,000 fewer adults becoming overweight and one million less obese. This would prevent between 247,000 and 309,000 obesity related-type 2 diabetes cases over the next two decades (2).
Britain is not the first nation to introduce a sugar tax either, with others including France, Norway and Mexico. The latter of the three implemented their tax back in 2013 after a growing national obesity problem. Although only in its early years, the tax resulted in the soft drinks industry monthly sale figures falling by 12% in December 2014 compared to the previous two years.
So this begs the question, why do I believe it’s not good enough? Clearly it did well in Mexico and studies suggest it will have a positive outcome. Well, I have three main concerns:
- It doesn’t cover all drinks.
- There’s no law to keep prices the same.
- Contains no education clause.
Unfortunately, the tax only applies to fizzy drinks, not pure fruit juices nor milk based drinks. This is a problem as pure fruit juices and milkshakes often contain as much sugar, or in some cases more, than the average fizzy drink. For example, Fanta Orange contains 6.6gs of sugar per 100mls whereas a Frijj Chocolate Milkshake holds 10.8gs per 100mls whilst Tropicana Orange Juice Smooth contains 10gs.
The argument to why the government did not include these types of products in the tax is that it is there to target drinks with ‘empty calories’ of which fizzy drinks are considered to have. Yet, it seems strange that a sugar tax would apply to products with lower levels of sugar than those with higher.
Secondly, the soft drink companies have the choice on whether to increase their prices to match the tax. Products like Fanta or Coca Cola are beloved by the general public and for most, an extra 18p or 24p per litre for a fizzy drink isn’t a substantial amount, or at least enough to put people off from purchasing them entirely. This could well result in the soft drink industry making the same amount of money as it does now but at the expense of the publics wallets and with no change to the sugar levels.
The tax should rather be taken directly out of the company’s profits whilst enforcing they retail their products at the same price. This would provide the soft drink industry with a far larger incentive to cut their sugar content to the below 5g or 8g mark.
Lastly, the sugar tax alone will not have a lasting effect on the battle against excessive sugar consumption, the budget should have arguably included a change to our children’s education too. Kids love the taste of sweet, sugary drinks and being told vaguely by their parents or the government that they are bad for you isn’t going to do much. There needs to be direct education on the dangers of consuming too much sugar, starting first at primary school.
At a young age you are far more likely to take in and fully appreciate the consequences of having too much sugar than you would when older, having already got the ‘taste’ for it. This was seen with education surrounding smoking over the last few decades, 45% of the population smoked in 1974 compared to the 19% that do now (4).
It does seem a little drastic to compare sugar to tobacco but NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens stated recently that “the new smoking is obesity” and when talking about how important it is to reduce our sugar, as we did with salt, he claimed “If that doesn’t happen then, in effect, what we’re doing is a slow-burner food poisoning through all of this sugar that goes on to cause cancer, diabetes, heart disease” (5).
With information like that from the head of our national health service we as a population really need to hold our hands up and seriously consider our eating and drinking behaviours. It’s easy to blame advertisements and poor education on our growing consumption of sugar but we have to take some responsibility. Over the last few years there has been plenty of talk over the ‘crumbling NHS’, with a lot of focus being drawn towards migrants and immigrants use of our health service and the strain it is causing.
Yet, treatment of type 2 diabetes alone is costing a reported £9 billion a year (6) whereas the price of health tourism is only £200 million (7). Without turning this article into a political debate, there is no denying our love for sugar is getting out of hand and is putting our treasured NHS under devastating pressure.
It can therefore be seen that the sugar tax alone is not enough. It’s no doubt a good start and was a bold move by the government when considering the power and influence of the soft drink industry. Yet, its means of implementation does not match its audaciousness. With no cap on companies having to retail at the same rate it is likely prices will go up to counter the tax and without better education, we the public will happily pay more for that sugary goodness.
Some people feel the task to drastically decrease the national sugar consumption is an incredibly difficult one but it can be compared to the battle against salt. Between 2001 and 2011 salt intake fell 15% whilst supermarket products now have 20-40% less salt, resulting in 6000 fewer heart attacks and strokes annually as well as savings of £1.5 billion to the NHS (8). So, by that measure it is possible, with some added incentives to the soft drink industry and better education, hopefully in a decade’s time we’ll all be far healthier and sugar free (within reason!).
Sugar Tax on Mars
A sugar tax on Mars would look rather different to Britain’s method. First of all, it would include all pure fruit juices and milkshakes, as well as products such as yoghurts and cereals. It would come with an education package with lessons on the dangers of high sugar consumption starting at reception age.
The soft drink industry would be given one year to change its sugar levels before the tax became law and they would be enforced to retail at the same price if they do not reduce their sugar content, taking into account inflation each year.
The tax would be slightly higher for drinks at around 24p for above 5gs per 100mls and 30p for over 10gs, with the added revenue going toward increased promotion of exercise as well as government funded exercise programmes for adults, with still £520 million going toward primary school sports.
Finally, those drinks and cereals/yoghurts that do not reduce their sugar content will be given less air time for TV adverts or at the very least they will have to clearly declare in the advert their high sugar content.
What do you think of the tax? Is it too much for the government to be regulated our sugar or should there be even more done to decrease the nations sugar consumption?
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