Is sugar tax bittersweet?

Friday, November 6, 2015

The UK Fitness Bloggers are holding a debate on the sugar tax.  See the bottom of my post for links to other opinions on the proposal.

In case you haven't heard, the Public Health England (PHE) has proposed to make foods with high sugar content 10-20% more expensive in an effort to deter consumption (which they called a tax or levy). This was one of a few suggestions put forth in the PHE report based on similar programs in other countries that found success, such as Mexico.  Other suggestions included more strict regulations in advertising to children, limiting discounts and offers on high sugar foods at the shops, reducing portion sizes in packaged foods and meals, and reviewing the Ofcom (Communications regulator in UK) nutrient profiling model which is used in advertising regulations.

I recommend you have a look at the report yourself. It was very easy to read (almost repetitive really) and summarises finding from a few studies across disciplines in terms of how much sugar we eat in the UK, how much money the UK food industry spends on promoting 'unhealthy' food, and how a similar campaign to change salt intake took shape.  Based on other countries success, the proposed sugar tax would be one way to eliminate the availability of sugary foods and drinks to children in particular (check fact).  However, there is a correlation between socio-economic status and sugar consumption, which is why some of the initial public reaction was that a sugar tax would be taxing the poor.  

People against Sugar Tax point out on their website that there is already a 20% tax on sugar called VAT.  They believe the focus should be on better nutritional labelling, encouraging children to do more exercise, and ending BOGO offers in shops on sugary foods.  I disagree with their last point that people are more aware they need to eat healthy and are therefore changing what they put into their baskets.  If this was the case, we would see it reflected in consumer reports and people's waistlines.  Unfortunately, convenience and cost will usually win when doing the weekly shop.

As a society, is there a deeper issue here in that poor people make poor food choices (or so the report says on pages 9 and 12)?  Can the cycle of being disadvantaged be broken by families getting their 5 a day? Would a monetary penalty change the culture?  Increasing tax on cigarettes haven't yet deterred smokers from their daily habit so at what point will soda prices be prohibitive?

One point from the report that has really changed the way I think about my purchasing habits was about offers and deals on junk food and fizzy drinks.  If something is 3 for 2, you may be lured into buying more of the product than you need and this can increase consumption because it is readily available.  People are creatures of habit, so if you normally buy x packet of biscuits a week, but another kind is on offer, you probably aren't going to put back your standard choice but instead just eat both in the same time span.  

I know I tend to buy treats for my team at work when there is a sale on in the shop.  I probably wouldn't buy those multi-packs of Haribos otherwise. Same thing with going into the 99p shops. I wouldn't go In there if I wasn't looking for a deal and usually I buy candy and cookies.  From now on, I am going to be extra aware when shopping as I am a girl who is a sucker for a deal! But along with that, I also love my teeth, my heart, my liver, and my waistline.  And excess sugar in my diet is not helping any of these.

Do I think a sugar tax will work? I hate to be a pessimist here but on a national level, I don't know if anything will.   Ultimately, it is a consumer's market.  We need education for people to understand the negative effects of sugar (which are hard to articulate in layman's terms), the potential health implications and associated costs to themselves and NHS, and we need to make cooking meals a priority again.  The tax might work if it is implemented with in-store advertising policies alongside it to prevent pop from going on 'sale' once the tax is applied.  And I am curious where tax monies would go. Could they be used to reduce cost of organic produce?  Offering local classes on cooking from scratch?  Or would it go to the NHS to help revive it?

I love my Diet Coke, know a bit about nutrition and the negative effects of a super sugary diet. However, I have no willpower. I love anything that tastes sweet and find it hard to walk by a 4 pack of freshly baked cookies without eating 2 in the 20 minute train ride home.  But I am on my 3rd round of Whole30, so I know I can live without it. I am a bit grumpy still on Day 5, but I will survive.

If we want to make an impact, we need to get these laws (sugar tax, children's TV advert regulations, I store promotions) passed in parliament (not sure if they will though, given the luxury tax on tampons remains after a parliamentary vote).  This alongside curriculum on health, eating, exercise to develop a culture of health in our children should also instil a fresh outlook on how things could be if we slow down, play more and spend time in the kitchen.  

As a nation, we cannot afford to wait any longer to put something in place.  The NHS will crumble at a rapid rate with increased health problems across all demographics, many of which are influenced by poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyle.  

Other blog posts on sugar tax to check out:


  1. As always, you make sensible suggestions and I agree completely that we cannot leave it to chance or to retailers. We do need to take action now

  2. Yes action now! It cannot hurt to reduce sugar consumption, not matter how we do it.


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