Dr Gail Rees is associate professor in human nutrition at Plymouth University School of Biomedical & Healthcare Sciences. Here she explains the benefits that using sugar tax to subsidise the price of fresh produce could have on the health of the nation and points to successful examples in other countries
The British Medical Association has 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 suggests that the extra revenue – which 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.
I think using a sugar tax to subsidise fresh fruit and vegetables would be a step in the right direction. We do really need to think about promoting healthy food more and making it easier for families to follow a healthy diet.
The report by Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition last week recommends further reductions in ‘free sugar’ consumption, but fibre intakes should be increased and this can be achieved by increasing intake of fresh fruit and vegetables along with whole grains.
According to some figures, the average Briton consumes an astounding 238 teaspoons of sugar a week – that’s more than 1kg. 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 sugar may sound draconian, but 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 might 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 government on food and farming issues, says that people in the UK consume more than 5.727 billion litres of sugary soft drinks a year, and that adding a 20% tax to every litre sold would raise more than £1.1bn – which could be used to improve many aspects of the health of the nation.
Similar taxes in other countries, such as the sugary drinks tax in Mexico, have been shown to work.
Unsurprisingly, the suggestion that sugar should be taxed has not been welcomed in all quarters. The Food & Drink Federation argues that such a tax would hit the poorest families at a time when they can least afford it, while others question whether those who maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle should be taxed to mitigate the lifestyles of those who don’t.
My argument is a simple one: whether we are directly or indirectly affected by obesity, 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.
Take diabetes as an example. Not all incidences of diabetes are caused by obesity or an unhealthy lifestyle, but the vast majority are. According to the Impact Diabetes report, the cost of treating diabetes will rise from £9.8bn to £16.9bn in 25 years’ time – which will equate to 17% of the total NHS budget.
Treatment for cardiovascular disease, another condition exacerbated by obesity, costs the UK health system around £9bn.
Cost to business
The cost implications of obesity are not just confined to health care expenditure – there are ramifications for the wider economy too.
In 2011, for which the most up to date statistics from the Office for National Statistics are available, 131 million days were lost to UK businesses through absences due to sickness and many of those illnesses can be linked to obesity. According to the CBI, absence from work through sickness is costing the UK £14bn a year.
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 hold 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.
Europe leads the charge
If the UK was to introduce a tax on sugar it would not be the first country in the world to do so – other nations, such as France, Finland and Hungary have already placed taxation on sweetened beverages.
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 BMA is suggesting a tax on sugar 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 sugar is just one of those approaches and, in my view, a sensible one to adopt.