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6 April 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:24pm

The science behind why the sugar tax is a good idea

Some sweet tooths were sour about the idea of paying more for their sugar. 

By Jason Murugesu

Britain’s sugar tax comes into effect today. It will currently only affect soft drinks: beverages that have 5g of sugar per 100ml will be taxed at 18p a litre, while drinks containing 8g per 100ml will be taxed at 24p a litre. It was one of the final actions initiated by George Osborne as Chancellor. 

Disgruntled sweet tooths have been complaining on social media throughout the day about the tax. But how much of their moaning is based on facts?

Though a sugar tax has been implemented in other countries and cities, such as Mexico and Philadelphia, Britain’s is one of a kind. Its multiple-tiered structure, in which the tax goes up depending on the amount of sugar in the drink, has been designed to encourage major soft drink producers to reformulate their drinks, rather than just raise their prices. 

What are the consequences of a sugar tax?

Dr Mike Rayner, a professor of population health at Oxford, published a paper in The Lancet on the potential impact of the sugar tax in 2016. The study modelled three possible industry responses to the tax: reformulation of products, an increase in the price of the products, and a change in the proportion of diet and high sugar drinks these companies produced. 

However well intentioned, previous health-related taxes have had mixed results. Following a major backlash, Denmark’s “fat tax” on saturated fats was abolished a year after its 2011 inception. The government failed to counter the perception that the tax was a revenue raising enterprise rather than a health initiative. 

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This sugar tax, though, could be different. Rayner tells the New Statesman that “the problem in general with taxing unhealthy foods, is that people tend to switch to cheaper foods, which in fact are even unhealthier. In this case [sugar tax] however, there are no less healthy options to sugary soft drinks.”

Rayner’s study found that the best case scenario for the tax would be it resulting in major soft drink manufacturers reformulating their products to be less sugar-heavy. This would lead to reduced rates of obesity and better oral health in children, and reduced risk of type-2 diabetes for all age-groups. Reformulation of these products, he found, would provide the greatest benefit.

The industry response has been varied. While Irn-Bru has made a big fuss about reformulating their drinks, Coca-Cola has stuck to its winning formula and simply increased its price. Indeed, the reformulation of soft drinks such as Ribena and Lucozade led to the Treasury slashing its predicted income from the tax in half from £500m to £250m. 

Does the tax unfairly affect poorer people?

Lower income households spend a higher proportion of their weekly budgets on food than higher income households, so will be unfairly affected by the sugar tax. But, as Henry Zeffman has argued in the New Statesman, this is somewhat the point, because the obesity crisis also affects poorer households more. However this also oversimplifies the question. 

As a paper published by The Lancet Taskforce on non-communicable diseases this week noted, the complexities of how such taxes work is unique to each and every population. How the tax affects the population will depend on how many people will still want to buy a normal coke, when diet coke is so much cheaper. According to the taskforce, in most instances, poorer households are more likely than richer households to reduce or even eliminate their consumption of goods which increase in price. 

Why can’t people choose to eat healthier for themselves?

The tax in its current incarnation is targeted towards those under 18, who get the highest proportion of added sugars from consuming soft drinks. A report by the British Medical Association in 2015 found that childrens’ diets were unduly affected by the heavy marketisation of sugary foods on TV and even in supermarkets. Parents would buy their children these foods, even if they acknowledged they were bad for their children’s health. 

A YouGov poll in 2015 found that Britons who considered themselves “healthy eaters” did not, in fact, buy healthy foods during their weekly shop. While we all know what a healthy diet looks like, we often do fail to stick to one, citing either a lack of time or the extra costs of eating healthier. 

Moreover, the tax is not only targeted towards consumers. Since 2015, the government has been pushing for a 20 per cent reduction of the sugar content in all confectionary products, but manufacturers have been slow to respond. The sugar tax has already led to 50 per cent of soft drink manufactures changing their drink formulas. Coercion works. 

Aren’t artificial sweeteners bad for you?

Reformulation is just a fancy word for the act of replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners. Although research has not been conducted on a large scale, studies have found that sweeteners do not (despite popular belief) increase your risk of cancer.

However, studies have also found that sweeteners can play a complex trick on our brains: they can dissociate sweetness with caloric intake. In other words, we do not automatically register something being sweet as also unhealthy. As a result, we crave more sweet products, which may lead to weight gain through other products.

The unfortunate truth is that research into most sweeteners has been limited and small-scale, but nevertheless most studies conducted so far have found that is far less dangerous than sugar. 

Osborne said earlier this week that he would have extended the tax to milk drinks if he had felt able (think your beloved double-shot vanilla syrup frappucino). In truth, anti-sugar activists might not have welcomed such an extensive and sudden tax, considering the lessons learned from Denmark. Nevertheless, the effects of this tax could offer a glimpse into what a post-sugar world would look like.

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