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27 January 2023

Libertarians hated it, but the sugar tax might just have worked

Researchers think it could have helped prevent obesity. Now there are calls to extend the levy and use it to fight health inequality.

By Rachel Wearmouth

When George Osborne introduced a sugar tax on fizzy drinks to come into force in 2018 it was dismissed as a nanny state intervention. While some within the Conservative Party and low-tax think tanks were opposed, its champions hoped it would tackle childhood obesity.

Many manufacturers did, as intended, reformulate their products so they contained less sugar and avoided the tax; research in 2021 found that households bought 10 per cent less sugar through soft drinks in 2019. And there is now some evidence that the tax is doing what it was designed to do.

A study by Cambridge University has found it may have prevented more than 5,000 cases of obesity every year among girls in their final year of primary school. More research is needed (experts found no measurable effect on obesity levels among year 6 boys) but supporters are now saying that the tax should be extended to cover fruit juices.

The naked chef’s truth

Conversation about levelling up often focuses on regional economic disparities but health inequalities are just as important. Politicians cannot ignore how the prevalence of childhood obesity is more than twice as high in the most deprived areas of England (13.6 per cent) than in the least deprived areas (6.2 per cent), according to NHS data.

It is true that, in some cases, prices have simply been raised for consumers but companies have also had to pay up, and the sugar tax raised more than £300m for the Treasury in the first year after it was introduced. Jamie Oliver, the chef who was one of the main public figures pressuring Osborne to bring in the levy, has suggested the cash raised could be spent on school meals for children from low-income families.

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That would certainly be a better use of public funds than the £15bn revealed by the National Audit Office to have been wasted on unusable PPE during the pandemic.

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New Year Hunt

Jeremy Hunt will go heavy on low-tax rhetoric when he gives a speech on the future of the economy today. Keeping, and even extending the sugar tax, certainly would not make the Chancellor popular among restless Tory MPs. But if something isn’t broke, why fix it?

[See also: Up north, Gove quotes Engels and criticises our broken economic model – but he’s stuck for solutions]