FROM TODAY – Friday, 6th April – there will be an extra tax on soft drinks which contain high levels of added sucrose (sugar). The tax has been put in place to reduce childhood obesity – but will it work?
The sugar tax was promoted by that walking public health measure Jeremy Oliver, who has done so much to improve the health of the nation’s children by revealing the scandal of school dinners and in whose luminous footsteps all other food campaigners can only hope to follow. He pointed out that manufacturers were loading drinks with sugar to increase consumption and, therefore, their own profits – landing the taxpayer with the cost of treating the consequences.
It’s certainly a serious problem. As part of the public education on why they were adopting the policy, Public Health England produced some simple facts which show the degree of harm which sugary drinks can do.
•Maximum recommended sugar intake, expressed in sugar cubes
4-6 year olds – 5 cubes
7-10 year olds – 6 cubes
over 11s – 7 cubes
•Sugar content of drinks
Typical energy drink (500ml) – 13 cubes
Can of Cola (330ml) – 9 cubes
Juice pouch (200ml) – 5 cubes
The tax takes the form of a levy on manufacturers equivalent to 24p per litre of drink, payable on any drink with more than 8grm of sugar per 100ml and 18p per litre payable on drinks with 5-8grm of sugar per 100ml of the drink.
Using taxation to reduce consumption is traditionally a Tory approach: it makes a product unaffordable for the many, the lower paid in society, while leaving the richer members of society still able to indulge. Having said which, if the tax works it will reduce the profits of manufacturers, so it is not an approach taken very often.
On the other hand, Labour would tend to use legislation to ban unnecessary additives: if they are unhealthy, they should not be fed to anyone. This approach can be criticised as reducing freedom of choice – but it is no less restrictive than using taxation to reduce choice.
The use of taxation has started well. So many companies have reduced the amount of sugar in the drinks they produce – in order to avoid the tax – that the Treasury has had to revise its estimate of the income the tax is likely to produce from £500 million a year to £240 million.
However, there are two loopholes.
•First, pure fruit juices will not be covered by the tax because although they contain a high amount of sugar this is in the form of naturally occurring fructose, not added sucrose (or dextrose). We need more public health education to push the case of young people drinking water, or diluting fruit juice.
•Second, some studies have shown that added artificial sugars, chemicals which mimic the sweet taste of sugars, can have a negative effect on how the body processes food and can promote weight gain. We need more research on this and action against these chemicals being added to our food if necessary. Others studies have suggested that these chemicals can have a bad effect on young people’s mood and behaviour.
Sugar is not only present in drinks: it is present in many other foods which are peddled to children, designed to up the profits of food manufacturers at the expense of our health and wellbeing. The Government says that it is trying to persuade manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar in takeaways, cereals, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, sweets and other products it targets children with. It had better use the spectre of the sugar tax on drinks to persuade manufacturers of these products to get a move on and implement some change.
The sugar tax is here. It will be a small help. Now let’s look at the other stuff.