Opinion

A tax on sugar is the bitter pill that is needed

18 March 2016

Dr Gail Rees_Associate Professor in Human Nutrition at Plymouth University School of Biomedical and Healthcare Sciences
Dr Gail Rees

This week the UK Chancellor announced a levy on soft drinks made with sugar. The revenue raised will be used to double the money primary schools have to spend on PE (physical education) and sports to £320 million a year. In this opinion piece, Dr Gail Rees, a long-term advocate of a tax on sugar and Associate Professor in Human Nutrition at Plymouth University School of Biomedical and Healthcare Sciences, argues the tax is a sensible move because obesity – directly and indirectly – is a concern for all

The announcement in the Budget, coincidentally also during national Nutrition and Hydration Week, to introduce a levy on the sugary drinks industry, was a welcome surprise to those of us concerned with how the nation feeds and waters itself.

The Chancellor announced that the levy will be added from April 2018, which gives the industry time to accommodate the changes and amend their recipes. The levy will apply to drinks with total sugar content above five grams per 100 millilitres, with a higher rate for more than eight grams per 100 millilitres. It will not apply to milk-based drinks or fruit juices.

The announcement comes after years of lobbying by the health professions. Last year the British Medical Association (BMA) called for a 20% tax on sugar because, according to its figures, poor diets are causing around 70,000 premature deaths each year.

The BMA suggested that the extra revenue – would amount to 13p on each can and 37p on each two-litre bottle of fizzy drink sold – should be used to make fruit and vegetables cheaper.

Alarming data

According to recent figures reported by Public Health England, the average five-year-old consumes the equivalent of their body weight in sugar in the course of a year. [Read Public Health England’s statement on the Treasury’s sugar tax announcement here.] But if you asked the majority of the population how much sugar they ate, the amount would be much lower: this is because so much of our western, processed diet contains hidden levels of the stuff.

And it’s not just in the obvious culprits, such as fizzy drinks and confectionery. Sugar is lurking in any number of seemingly innocuous everyday foodstuffs, such as canned tomatoes, salad dressings, peanut butter, breakfast cereals, bread, pasta – the list goes on.

A tax on sugary drinks is supported by research: a study published in the British Medical Journal showed that it would have a benefit. The study estimated that a tax of 20% would lead to a reduction in the prevalence of obesity in the UK of 1.3% (around 180,000 people). It showed that the greatest effects may occur in young people, with no significant differences between income groups. Its authors said that: “Taxation of sugar sweetened drinks is a promising population measure to target population obesity, particularly among younger adults.”

The charity Sustain, which advises the Government on food and farming issues, says that people in the UK consume more than 5,727 million litres of sugary soft drinks a year, and that adding a 20% tax to every litre sold would raise more than £1.1 billion – which could be used to improve many aspects of the health of the nation.

Obesity a concern for all

I am pleased that the Government has introduced this levy because my argument has always been a simple one: whether we are directly or indirectly affected by obesity, at the end of the day it is everyone’s problem and we should all be worried about it.

Obesity places an enormous burden on the NHS and other social services. Some estimates show that as much as 30% of the UK population will be obese by 2030. It is estimated that obesity costs the economy £27bn a year – which equates to more than half the NHS pay bill.

But the argument for a tax on sugar to help curb obesity is about more than money saving: it is about improving the health of the nation in general.

We are, on average, living for longer. As a consequence, our bodies and our good health need to last us for many years more than in previous generations. Good diet, exercise and a healthy lifestyle adopted from an early age holds us in good stead for healthier, more active later years. Not only does this mean a pleasanter later life experience for us as individuals, it also means that as we age we become less of a potential burden on those around us and the services designed to support us.

Obesity in the UK is at a very high level and if it continues to increase at its current rate the outlook for the health of the nation is, without exaggerating the threat, scary. The very fact that the Government will now introduce a levy on sugary drinks is indicative of how seriously the issue is taken by those at the very highest levels. We need to look at lots of different approaches to the problem: a tax on sugary drinks is just one of those approaches and, in my view, a sensible one to adopt.

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