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Sugar tax – not as sweet as you think

The Chancellor’s Budget announcement of a tax levy on soft drink manufacturers was welcomed by most political parties, many health professionals and one widely-smiling celebrity chef. But I have serious reservations. Delivered as a smoke screen to deflect attention from a failing economy, according to the Independent newspaper, it could be viewed as a cynical attempt to help prop up the government, not protect the health of our children. So behind the hype, what are the facts?

There’s no doubt childhood obesity is a serious problem. By the time kids leave junior school there’s a 10 per cent chance they’ll be obese and by the end of senior school that risk has almost doubled, and at least one third are overweight. We are, without doubt, raising a generation of overweight and obese children, exposing them to early onset of type II diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and premature death. Achieving a solution is a national medical and economic emergency, so I can understand why health campaigners are clutching at straws to try and reduce obesity levels. But a sugar tax, so warmly welcomed, is never going to work.

It’s been tried before, in Denmark, and abandoned a year later as a failure. Mexico is often cited as an example to follow; since when did our demographics match Mexico? Their relationship with sugary drinks is legendary; they call their “addicts” Cocacoleros. A typical Mexican teenager gets up to 600 calories of his 2000 daily needs from sugary drinks. And yet, after the introduction of a 10 per cent tax on sugary drinks, their Ministry of Health is still unable to show any appreciable health benefit. Their Finance minister however proudly boasts of almost a billion dollars raised in taxes.

Briggs and colleagues published their model of how a sugary drinks tax would work in the UK, in the BMJ in 2014. A 20 per cent tax ( double that of Mexico) would result in the average UK teenager reducing their daily intake of 300 calories from sugary drinks by, wait for it, four calories a day. Enough of a difference wrote Briggs, to move almost one million people out of the BMI of 30 plus “obese” bracket. Those in favour of a sugary drinks tax seize on these figures as justification for their campaign. But one million of us would not overnight become stick thin; it would simply mean that one million of us would decrease our weight slightly and measure up with a new BMI of 29, and remain at significant risk of obesity-associated disease. And, if the British people show the same creativity as the Danes, they will soon find ways to supplement their sugary drink fix with other sugar substitutes. It would, in short, fail.

The second reason why I am opposed to a sugar tax in principle, is that it is, without doubt, a regressive tax. It would unfairly penalise the economically poor in society (one piece of data the Mexicans could produce) and, in an age of food banks and increasing childhood poverty, how could any health professional countenance that? How could anyone who cares about health inequalities countenance that?

So what about the Chancellor’s statement? He did not announce a tax on sugary drinks as campaigners wanted, and misleadingly claim to have achieved. It is a levy on the soft drink industry, to be introduced in two years time, to encourage, he says, industry to decrease the sugar content of its products voluntarily. Well, experience with the Responsibility Deal shows us that won’t work either. So the real risk is that the soft drinks manufacturers will simply pass the cost onto consumers. I hope I am proved wrong. They certainly claim to be incensed by the new tax burden they are going to face. But if a few pence on the price of a soft drink is meant to make the general public mend the error of their ways, will the same work for big business?

Sadly, in two years time, when further negotiations between government and industry have occurred, and the flurry of attention has died down, and the Chancellor doesn’t need to distract us from the real news, we will be no better off. The much acclaimed tax levy will have been watered down to appease big business, get the government off the hook, and to make it next to pointless. Our children, sadly, will be no thinner then than they are today. The real solution to the obesity epidemic is however………for another day


Dr Ian Campbell
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