My Thoughts on the Controversial UK Sugar Tax

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This post was originally written in November 2015 before the UK Sugar Tax was confirmed. I updated this on the 6th of April 2018 (the date that the sugary drinks tax came into force).

What is the Sugar Tax?

This is a tax on sugary drinks which was announced by the UK government in March 2017.

This ‘Sugar Tax’ has 2 levels:

  • Drinks with a total sugar content of 5 – 8g per 100ml will be taxed at a lower rate of 18p per litre
  • Drinks with a total sugar content of more than 8g per 100ml will be taxed at a higher rate of 24p per litre

In England, the money generated from this tax will be used to support healthy eating and physical activity in schools.

Where Did This All Come From?

This tax is part of a wider sugar reduction programme in the UK which is aiming “to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute most to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in the first year of the programme”.  The food and drinks industry can comply with this in different ways, such as reducing portion sizes, sugar levels in products, or nudging people towards buying lower sugar alternatives (such as using price incentives).

This sugar reduction plan is based on a number of reports which raised concern about how much sugar people are consuming; especially children. These reports included: Public Health England’s report “Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action” (2015), the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s report  “Carbohydrates and Health” (2015), the World Health Organisation’s “Report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity” (2016) and the UK’s childhood obesity plan (2016)

Before the Sugar Tax was confirmed it was backed by Public Health England, the British Dietetic Association, the British Medical Association. Jamie Oliver also did a lot of campaigning for this tax to be introduced, this included a TV programme in September 2015 called “Jamie’s Sugar Rush”.

A poll from 2015 found that 53% of people were in favour of the sugar tax, but there has also been a significant backlash against this.

Arguments Against The Sugar Tax

“The Sugar Tax Discriminates Against Low Income Groups”

I think there is some truth to this, but you could also argue that this is a helpful incentive to nudge people towards lower sugar drinks which won’t be effected by the tax, and therefore shouldn’t make any difference financially.

Public Health England’s report in 2016  specifically outlined that “price promotions” were an important factor that need to be targeted for obesity reduction strategies to be effective, especially for the poorest in society. Two recent studies have found that tax incentives, including sugar taxes like this, have resulted in the most health benefits for those in the lowest income groups, and that it doesn’t seem to have a much of an effect in terms of finances (references here and here).

As the money raised from the UK Sugar Tax is supposed to go towards health promotion in schools,  hopefully this will also benefit disadvantaged groups.

“The Sugar Tax is Controlling/Judgemental”

I can see that taxing sugary drinks does send the message that these are bad, and in general it isn’t healthy to view foods as simply ‘good or bad’ as it depends on the context.

No food or drink needs to be completely off-limits to have a healthy diet (unless you are allergic to it or it is poisonous of course!).

Another way of looking at this is that ‘health nudges’ like this can be an effective way of encouraging population level behaviour change.

So I think it depends on whether you see this as a ‘nudge’ or a more aggressive ‘push’ towards these healthier choices.

“The Sugar Tax is Too Simplistic”

Reducing sugar intake alone isn’t going to solve all public health issues related to nutrition. So many factors are involved in our nutritional status such as: genetics, epigenetics, psychology, lifestyle, medical conditions, social situation, education levels, food availability, marketing, our hormones and our metabolism.

Nutrition itself is never as simple as changing or isolating one nutrient, so vilifying sugar is overly-simplistic.

With nutrition and health it’s about the bigger picture of what our diet contains over a long period of time, as well as other lifestyle factors like activity, alcohol intake, smoking status, sleep quality, stress levels etc.

Some people argue that there are higher priorities than the Sugar Tax, such as banning advertisement of unhealthy food and drinks which are aimed at children. I agree that this is also really important; so far Ireland is the first country which has planned introduce this and I hope that more countries follow suit.

Overall I think that that this tax could be a good way of encourage people to reduce the amount of sugar that they consume on average, but it definitely shouldn’t be portrayed as the answer to all of our problems, and sugar itself shouldn’t be portrayed as the enemy of good health!

Arguments in Favour of the Sugar Tax

“Taxing High Sugar Products Has been Effective in Other Countries”

Research from countries such as Mexico has shown that at least in the short term, taxing high sugar products can lead to a reduced consumption of these products; with higher taxation levels resulting in a larger reduction (see this meta-analysis and reference number 34 in this report). Recent global data also supports the health benefits associated with taxing high sugar products.

“The Sugary Drinks Tax Would Have Substantial Health Benefits”

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s evidence-based review “Carbohydrates and Health” (2015) reported that:

  • High levels of sugar consumption are associated with a greater risk of tooth decay.
  • The higher the proportion of sugars in the diet, the greater the risk of high energy intake.
  • Drinking high-sugar beverages results in weight gain and increases in BMI in teenagers and children.
  • Consuming too many high-sugar beverages increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Free sugars (all sugar added to foods, but not including those naturally found in fruit and dairy foods) should account for no more than 5% daily dietary energy intake; which is roughly 5-7 sugar cubes per day depending on your age group.
  • The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (like fizzy drinks, soft drinks and squash) should be minimised by both children and adults.

In preparation for this tax, some drinks companies have already reduced the amount of sugar in their products; such as Lucozade Ribena Suntory who have reduced the sugar in some of their drinks like Orangina and Lucozade Energy by 50%. Although this may have benefits for the general public, it is important to note that this has effected some people who need to to use fast-acting sugar to stay healthy; such as those with Diabetes who need to treat low blood sugars (hypoglycaemia) and people with certain metabolic conditions. The fear-mongering aspect of this campaign may also have caused psychological strain for some people, especially by increasing feelings of guilt associated with sugary food and drink.

On a large scale I think the health benefits are likely to out-weight potential negative side-effects; but it is important to bear the potential downsides in mind.

“The Sugary Drinks Tax Would Have Economic Benefits”

This tax may cause savings to the NHS from reducing the incidence of the diseases mentioned above; it has been estimated that this could generate 1 billion pounds. It’s great that the money raised from the tax itself is planned to be used for education and health promotion purposes; hopefully this will be put to good use.

Where Do I Stand?

When I first wrote this post in 2015 I was all for the Sugar Tax, now I see that it isn’t that straight-forward.

On balance I still think the pros out-weight the cons when it comes to this tax, especially if other public health strategies are used alongside it; such as stricter advertising laws and promotion of other healthy behaviours like regular physical activity.

But there are down-sides as well; such as adding fuel to the ‘anti-sugar’ movement rather than promoting an overall healthy relationship with food, and causing problems for some people who need fast-acting sugary drinks to help them to manage certain medical conditions.

Now that the Sugar Tax has been implemented, I  suppose time will tell as to what affect this will have!

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