Yesterday, Chancellor George Osbourne announced a tax on sugary drinks as part of his 2016 Budget. The tax will be levied on companies from 2018, with a lower rate for drinks containing more than 5g per 100ml and a higher rate for drinks containing more than 8g per 100ml. It is expected that manufacturers will pass all of this tax charge on to the consumer, meaning higher prices for sugary drinks. In practice this means that a can of Sprite would cost 6p more and a can of Coke 8p more. It is expected to raise around £530m which will be spent on primary school sports.
Combined, these measures are hoped to help address the rising rates of obesity in the UK, by reducing sugar consumption and increasing activity levels in children. It is a big issue with two thirds of adults overweight or obese and one quarter of children. It is no longer normal to be ‘normal’ size! Obesity can lead to many related diseases such as type II diabetes, heart disease, musculoskeletal disorders, cancers, depression and anxiety. Obesity related diseases are estimated to have cost £5.1 billion in 2006/7, which is more than smoking or alcohol related diseases. With such a huge bill, the government are right to try and address this problem. But is a tax on sugary drinks the right way to go?
It is hoped that the sugar tax will change people’s buying habits to reduce sugar consumption. This approach has worked in Mexico, where consumption of sugary drinks dropped by 12% in the first year after the introduction of a 10% tax on them. The impact was greater in the poorest households, which reduced their consumption of sugary drinks by an average of 17%. Obesity rates are highest amongst poorer people, and they will be hit hardest by this new sugar tax. This has led many to criticise the sugar tax for being regressive. However, the whole point of the tax is to change people’s behaviour, and so of course it will affect the people who behave in that way, more than those who don’t. They will still have freedom of choice, just as people do with smoking and drinking alcohol, which are also taxed. It is also worth noting that this is only a tax on sugary drinks, not sugar overall.
George Osbourne has allowed 2 years for the introduction of this tax so that manufacturers can change their recipes and work to promote low-sugar and no-sugar brands, which many are already doing. However ‘low-sugar’ and ‘no-sugar’ usually means ‘diet’ or ‘light’ versions of drinks which contain artificial sweeteners. However, there is concern that diet drinks may not be a healthy substitute for sugary drinks. Some long-term studies have shown that consumption of drinks containing artificial sweeteners may even be linked to weight gain, not weight loss. Another study showed that increased consumption of artificial sweeteners was linked to an increase in type II diabetes. It may be best to limit artificial sweeteners to short term use, in small amounts, to help individuals wean themselves off sugary drinks.
Sugar is not the sole cause of the obesity crisis. Although increased sugar consumption does lead to weight gain, UK sugar consumption peaked in the post-war era and is now in decline. There must be some other factors at play here. Could it be that artificial sweetners are part of the problem, and not part of the solution? Do we need to address the types of food that are being eaten such as processed foods, dairy, cereals, grains and vegetable oils which have only become available in recent human history? Are we eating the correct proportions of protein, carbohydrate and fat for the human body to function properly? Activity levels also have a role in this story as well, as we are becoming far more sedentary than ever before, and many adults and children do not meet recommended activity levels.
Overall the sugar tax is to be welcomed as it will raise awareness of the problems associated with high levels of sugar consumption, and encourage people to change their behaviour and drink fewer sugary drinks. However I think this is just one factor in the obesity crisis and there are other areas that need to be addressed, such as the high levels of availability of junk food and sweets, the high amounts of sugar in all processed or ready-made foods, even savoury ones, which make it much harder for people to achieve sugar intake recommendations, and heavy marketing and advertising of these products.