The UK government has announced it will introduce a new tax on the sugary drinks industry. The idea is to tackle child obesity. Conservative governments don’t usually have much of a sweet tooth for raising taxes on anything, so they must have a pretty good reason for flirting with this sugar tax, right? That’s for you to decide, once you’ve got the facts inside you.
UK kids are becoming obese much earlier in life than before, according to a University College London study published May 2015. According to a BBC report, one in five children is obese by the time they finish primary school aged 11, and kids consume three times more sugar than they should, a third of that comes from fizzy drinks.
In comparison with the rest of Europe, the UK is the third tubbiest country after Iceland and Malta, according to research conducted by Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The same study found over a quarter of children are overweight or obese in the UK.
It’s not just weight concerns. Diabetes UK also reports a 60% rise in Type 2 Diabetes in the last decade – blaming this rise on our unhealthy livelihoods. Would taxing the sugary stuff help us kick the habit?
Picture it. You’ve had a big one, you’ve got work, and you’re totally convinced by Lucozade’s rebranding effort as a hangover cure. Do the extra pennies keep you from buying that sugary lifeline?
Science says yes, probably.
A few countries have tried out a sugar tax, and studies like this one and this one suggest that it did reduce sugar consumption, especially among ethnic minorities and people on low income. This study found that low tax hikes, like 4%, don’t really make a difference though.
So it looks like the sugar tax makes people buy less pop. But would the same result happen for the UK? The studies we linked you to above were carried out in the US, Mexico, Brazil and France.
What if you look at similar UK ‘sin’ taxes, like on alcohol and cigarettes? Your/your Dad’s beer and tabs are taxed between 8p and 24p a litre depending on the alcohol content, plus 16.5% retail price for the cigs. Have these taxes had much of an effect on the UK’s puffing and quaffing habits?
Science says no, not really.
UK government research found in 2014 that for each 1% tax increase on alcohol, there is less than 1% decrease in beer or wine consumption. Not much, then. The same goes for cigarettes, according to Buzzfeed. Does the UK just have a more addictive personality than other countries?
Then again, what do smoking and drinking really have in common with sugar consumption other than the slow but delicious death they induce? After all, this is supposed to be about improving the health of children.
Taxing the sweet stuff might put us off buying Dr. Pepper, as if we needed more reasons, but might we just switch to something that’s just as fatty, like this study found?
Yup, we might just substitute our sugary crap for more crap. But that crap, another study suggests, might be better than sugary crap. That study, which reduced the sugar in kids’ diets but gave them the same calorific intake, suggested that sugar isn’t just bad because of the calories, it’s bad because it’s sugar. If your boo calls you Sugar, you might have reason to be insulted.
BTW, no one is suggesting that the sugar tax is going to solve this problem alone. There are other measures on the agenda, like cracking down on shop promotions and advertising on unhealthy foods.
We’ve been reading the comments sections on reports about the sugar tax, and the great British public don’t seem too happy about paying tax because people don’t know self-control. Plus, shouldn’t the government give us the freedom to choose what we put in our own mouths?
Fair enough. Three things though.
(1) Is this really about self-control, or is it a broader issue of the kinds of foods people, particularly those on a lower income, have daily access to? This isn’t just about cost, although that’s part of it, it’s also the time it takes to plan and cook a healthy meal. Income-poor people also tend to be time-poor, particularly mothers. Some have argued that a sugar tax punishes the poor: with a much greater proportion of their disposable income going on these ‘sin taxes.’ With this in mind, perhaps a broader societal change is needed, or at least more effort focused on improving access to healthy food, rather than just blocking access to sugary crap.
(2) Self-control or not, we already pay for obesity and Type 2 Diabetes through contributing to the NHS. The NHS spends £14 billion a year on diabetes and its complications. Could paying this tax help ease spending on public health in the long run?
(3) How much say should the government have in our guzzling, puffing and quaffing? It’s a very fair question, but concealed within it is how much say advertisers have in the same matter. As it is, some would argue, it’s not just a question of the government sitting back and allowing us to make up our own minds: we’re making up our minds in an environment where the UK food industry spends £256 million on marketing ‘unhealthy’ food to us.
For Britons, obesity is arriving earlier and the number of diabetics is on the rise There is evidence from other countries that a sugar tax will cut our fizzy drinks intake. It will take more than that to curb obesity, and the government knows it, but at least reducing sugar consumption is a healthy step. Is it fair though? That’s on you, sugar.