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17 March 2016updated 02 Sep 2021 4:39pm

Of course the sugar tax is regressive. So is sugar

The obesity crisis disproportionately affects the poor.

By Henry Zeffman Henry Zeffman

There are already as many arguments against the sugar tax as there are sugary drinks that will fall under its ambit. In yesterday’s Budget, George Osborne announced two new levies: one on drinks with a sugar content above 5g per 100ml, and another higher levy for drinks with more than 8g sugar per 100ml. The levies will work out as either an 18p or 24p surcharge – which the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) expect to be passed on entirely to the consumer.

Though Jeremy Corbyn signalled his support for the measure in his response to the Chancellor in the Commons yesterday, there is an emergent left-wing critique: that the sugar levy is regressive, and therefore unjustifiable.

The charge of regressiveness is undeniably correct: as with other consumption taxes, the levy will represent a disproportionately large share of poorer people’s incomes.

Well of course it’s regressive. So is sugar and so are its effects. The country’s obesity crisis – and it really is a crisis when almost two-thirds of adults are either overweight or obese along with a quarter of young children – disproportionately affects the poorest.  Findings drawn at the end of last year from the Millenium Cohort Study, which tracks nearly 20,000 British families, found a stark link between relative poverty and childhood obesity. By the age of just five, poor children were almost doubly likely to be obese than their better off peers.

Of course sugar consumption does not explain all, or even most, of that relationship. Still, high sugar intakes are a cause of obesity, and obesity is a cause of type 2 diabetes, which has risen by 70% in a decade.

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If obesity and its effects disproportionately hit the poor, why should it be any surprise that a measure to tackle obesity disproportionately affects the poor? That’s the whole point. A tax with the intention of changing behaviour is obviously going to affect the people who behave in that way.

But surely the nub of the issue is this. The OBR anticipates a reduction in demand for sugary drinks of between 0.8% and 1% for each 1% price rise resulting from the levy. A diminution of demand for sugary drinks will help decrease their risks of obesity, diabetes and other health problems. If you accept that the government has a responsibility to ameliorate public health then you should accept this levy. If you are an instrumentalist about these things, less illness means a reduced burden on the NHS. Spending on diabetes and diabetes-related illnesses accounts for 10% of the budget of the NHS in England and Wales.

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That’s not to say the levy is a silver bullet. There are background socioeconomic factors which mean that the most poor too often consume unhealthy diets. Further benefit cuts are hardly going to help in that regard. And there are various other strategies that have been shown to depress consumption of sugary drinks, such as different marketing strategies in supermarkets. It’s also peculiar that milky drinks and fruit juices are to be exempted from the levy – not because they are only consumed by the middle classes, but precisely because they are consumed across society by people who do not have healthy diets. 

But none of those caveats should obscure this fundamental fact. Yes, the sugar tax is regressive. So is sugar consumption and so is obesity. This is a regressive attack on a regressive malaise and it should be applauded.