The Sugar Tax – is it hitting the sweet spot?

Is a “sugar tax” ultimately what we want?

The potential of a sugar tax is undoubtedly a big topic. Pressure, from politicians and campaigners, has been mounting on the Government to take action and address the current consumption levels of sugar. Public health advocates see the introduction of a sugar levy as a key measure in tackling the obesity crisis and the rising number of cases of tooth decay amongst five year olds. Jamie Oliver’s documentary, Sugar Rush, is the most high-profile appeal yet for a tax to be introduced on sugary drinks, and Oliver considers sugary drinks and cereal as the main culprits of the current obesity crisis. The food and drinks industry regards the measure as an unfair penalty, which will not be sufficient to shift consumer behaviour, or encourage exercise, but rather dissuade large businesses from investing in the UK.

Jeremy Hunt MP, the Secretary of State for Health, has faced substantial levels of criticism for delaying the publication of a Public Health England report, which looks at the possible measures to reduce sugar consumption. The Chair of the Health Select Committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, wrote a strongly worded letter to the Minister, stating that she was “very disappointed to learn that it was not [his] current intention to allow PHE’s evidence review to be published in advance of [their] inquiry”.

The inquiry, which revolves around the Government’s childhood obesity strategy and builds on a prior inquiry into diet and physical activity, began this week with the announcement that the Committee intends to call Duncan Selbie, the chief executive of Public Health England to give evidence and so that he can explain why he has not published the report as “delayed publication is as harmful as non-publication if this means that the public and health professionals wishing to influence the content of the obesity strategy do not have access to the data before the ink is dry on the obesity strategy” (source).

Throughout this week’s evidence session, the Committee listened both to pro-sugar tax groups as well as industry groups and their arguments against each other. With further evidence sessions scheduled for next week, a number of observations can be made about the overall nature of this ongoing debate.

  • Despite the broad remit of the original inquiry, a substantial part of the ultimate report is bound to focus on the merits of a sugar tax. As noted during the evidence session, while the issue of sugar is not different from the past discussions on salt reduction, the lack of transparency on scientific evidence has prompted groups to advocate for a tax.
  • There is no one view on sugar tax. While the call for a fee of 20p per litre may appear straightforward, there is no consistent view amongst the various organisations calling for a tax on what the purpose of the tax is, what exactly should be taxed (sugary drinks overall, all sugar in food or specific types of sugary drinks) and its role in changing consumer behaviour vis-à-vis prompting industry response.
  • It is unclear whether the advocated tax would be sufficient to shift customer behaviour (it has been suggested it is not).
  • The industry is in fact actively working on developing low-calorie options and alternatives to their customers, but revelations of industry funding of public health research make this argument challenging to present.
  • The call for a tax on sugar products is ultimately not about fiscal measures but as a way to address growing levels of obesity and illnesses caused by poor diets and lack of physical exercise.

There is a minefield here for industry and advocacy groups to tread. With increasing political scrutiny and battles, it is important to ensure that the issue does not become a political piñata that would derail the good it aims to achieve. Equally, it is vital that the ongoing discussions include wider measures that aim to educate the public on nutrition and food, encourage greater physical activities and alter public attitudes. Companies want to be seen as responsible while also responding to market demands. A balance needs to be struck between these two.

It is important to stress, however, that ultimately all sides of the debate agree – a sugar tax would not be sufficient in itself to address the current obesity crisis and a wider range of measures should be considered. This prompts the question – would a sugar tax actually hit the “sweet spot” of changing customer purchasing habits and be enough to tackle the public health challenges we face as a nation?