Fat tax on fizzy drinks and milk edges ever nearer
A few years ago, when I used to smoke, I used to think they would never be able to ban smoking. Then, after a successful ban in parts of the US, and then in Ireland, the inevitable ban came into force in July 2007. While the concept of a “fat tax” in the UK originally seemed a fluffy and ridiculous American idea that would never make it across the Atlantic, growing support amongst academia, and in our neighbouring countries, could mean that we are at the start of a slippery slope into fat taxing.
The latest chapter in the campaign proposes imposing a 10% fat tax on sugary drinks and full fat milk, which would, it is suggested, cut consumption and prompt a switch to healthier alternatives. Sugary and full-fat drinks have been blamed for expanding waistlines, claimed in a new British Journal of Nutrition (BJN) study, one of the co-authors being Professor Susan Jebb, an eminent nutrition specialist who has been the government's main adviser on obesity since 2007.
A growing number of countries are considering fat taxes in order to demotivate the purchase of ‘unhealthy’ products which contain a lot of saturated fat or sugar. Following Denmark’s introduction of a fat tax on foods with more than 2.3% saturated fat in October this year, David Cameron said that the coalition would consider following suit as a way of minimising the huge and rising medical harm and financial cost to the National Health Service caused by obesity and obesity related illness. But it’s not just those jumper-wearing Danes- the French are planning to introduce a soft drinks tax, Hungary has already brought in an extra levy on all "high-fat-sugar-salt" products, and Finland is punishing sweet-munchers. Interestingly though, Ireland brought a soft-drink tax in but then abandoned it.
The BJN study analyses trends in consumption of all drinks by both children and adults in Britain between 1986 and 2009 before estimating the likely impact of a 10% increase in the price of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). "In testing taxation as an option for shifting beverage purchase patterns, we calculate that a 10% increase in the price of SSBs could potentially result in a decrease of 7.5ml per capita per day. A similar 10% hike in the cost of full-fat milk would also reduce consumption of it by 5ml per person per day and increased intake of reduced fat milk by 7ml per head every day.”
But it’s not just some random academics in a cupboard with this view. The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) “supports legislative measures to tackle major public health issues, such as obesity, where there is substantial evidence to support it."
Professor John Wass, chair of the college's obesity working party, added "Legislative measures have already worked in France, where food and drink in schools is controlled and all marketing of foods high in fat, sugar and salt is banned unless they are taxed and marketed with a health warning. Studies have shown that following these measures, the number of overweight children in France has dropped from 18.1% in 2000 to 15.5% in 2007," he said.
The RCP is "sceptical" that the Government’s current plan of "nudging" consumers to adopt healthier lifestyles will succeed , saying that "the additional force of legislation or financial pressures" is necessary.
Dr Mike Rayner, obesity expert and public health researcher at Oxford University, said: "This research adds to the increasing weight of expert opinion that fiscal measures are an underused mechanism which may prove to be an important public health tool for influencing people's food choices away from those high in saturated fat, salt or sugar." Ministers should now commission "an independent review which would make recommendations on UK taxation on unhealthy foods, considering both economic factors and health outcomes", Rayner added.
Unsurprisingly, the soft drinks industry dismissed the idea, describing it as "ineffective, intrusive and unfair". Richard Laming, of the British Soft Drinks Association, said: "A tax on soft drinks is not the way to fight obesity. Many people enjoy soft drinks within a balanced diet: those people should not be targeted for additional taxes. Balanced diets and active lifestyles can only be achieved through information and education and not regulation or compulsion."
Other arguments against the effectiveness of such an idea are that consumers would simply buy larger bottles, use cheaper shops, drink cheaper brands or only buy soft drinks on on of the numerous special offers. Given that many consumers pay many times the price for Coca-Cola or Pepsi than unbranded cola, surely few would be deterred by a 10% price rise?
So is this just another example of tax gone mad? Surely everyone who drinks Coke is not an elephantine bloater, so why punish the many to target the few? And is it really fair to say that fizzy drink consumption alone makes people obese? Why not have a fat tax on NHS treatment based on your weight instead?
The Department of Health refused to say if it supported a soft drinks or any other "fat" tax.