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Yes, it's finally happening, the sugar tax will now be a 'thing' in the UK according to George Osborne's budget. It is believed that the 20% tax on sugary drinks will prevent 3.7 million people in the UK from becoming obese within the next decade. It is expected that this sugar tax will raise £520m between 2018 and 2019, £500m the following year and £455m between 2020 and 2021 with all of the money raised going towards combating childhood obesity.
As lovely as this is, the question is, how accurate are these reports? Can this sugar tax really prevent obesity?
Firstly, this report comes from highly reputable sources, Cancer Research UK and the UK Health Forum. This holy alliance that has studied strokes, heart disease as well as various other conditions believes that by the year 2025 this tax has the potential to reduce health and social care spending by as much as £10m per year. Their report also stated that, on average, people would be consuming 15 fewer calories per day.
As it stands, 29% of people in the UK are obese with that figure set to increase to 34% by 2025. The report has predicted that the sugar tax will level out at 29%, therefore preventing 3.7 million Brits from becoming obese.
Alison Cox from Cancer Research UK has stated that' "The ripple effect of a small tax on sugary drinks is enormous. These numbers make it clear why we need to act now before obesity becomes an even greater problem." This statement was further supported by Jane Landon of the UK Health Forum who has gone on record to say that "Countries which have introduced a tax on sugary drinks have not only reduced consumption, they have raised much-needed revenues for public health measures."
The union of Cancer Research UK and the UK Health Forum aren't the only individuals who are supporting the effectiveness of the UK sugar tax. Public Health England (PHE), which is the government's own advisory group, has supported Mr. Osborne's sugar tax by referencing Mexico's similar levy. This 10% levy that was introduced in 2014 saw a 12% decline in the purchasing of fizzy drinks. According to this study, which was published in the British medical journal, it was discovered that over the course of a year the average person in Mexico bought 4.2 fewer litres of sugary drinks. This study led by Mexico's National Institute of Public Health concluded that after a total of twelve months, purchases of fizzy drinks had fallen to 12%. Public Health England (PHE) believe that a levy of a similar amount (10% to 20%) when combined with additional measures, including a reduction in marketing for junk food, could see a similar level of effectiveness.
It should be noted that Public Health England (PHE) did not delve into the various arguments against the sugar tax. Naughty, naughty. One argument against the effectiveness of the sugar tax is that Mexico isn't the only country to use a tax on food. In October 2011, Denmark tried out a tax on foods high in saturated fat. This so-called 'fat tax' proved to be ineffective because it encouraged people to go to Germany for their shopping, which had a ripple effect by increasing the prices of everyday food items. This tax failed to positively influence eating habits, which led to them dropping their plans to introduce a sugar tax. The effectiveness of this sugar tax isn't looking so cut-and-dry now is it?
Furthermore, whilst PHE uses Berkeley, California as an example for sugar tax in action, their results weren't so impressive. The reason behind it's ineffectiveness is that only 22% of Berkeley's 'soda tax' was passed on to the consumers. A study carried out by Cornell University concluded that as a result of this, the impact of the soda tax "fizzled out". PHE has gone on to admit "price discounting on high-sugar products and its consistent impact on purchasing of food brought into the home would likely be greater than even the largest tax already introduced internationally".
Whilst the PHE's report and multiple older studies, have shown that a 10% price increase on high-sugar products can reduce consumption of these products by 6 to 8%, it doesn't mean that all case studies are the same. There are so many factors that have to be taken into consideration, such as how much of the tax will be transferred to the consumers and discounting on products. These changes would influence and even undermine the entire purpose of the tax. The PHE themselves have even said that the overall impact of price hikes is considerably small when compared to marketing strategies (e.g. end-of-isle displays) which have instigated a rise in the sale of carbonated drinks by up to 50%.
Also, a decrease in the sale of high-sugar products can simply be attributed to changes in diet, as well as an improvement in education concerning healthy living and nutrition. In fact, across the Atlantic in the USA the consumption of sugary drinks (or soda pop for our American cousins) has been steadily decreasing over the past 15 years. This has even been the case in regions where a sugar tax debate isn't even present. This proves that dietary changes nationwide, such as stricter menus in schools and food education, can be far more impactful in the fight against obesity (especially for the young) than a sugar tax.
So, now that we've explored the reasons why the UK sugar tax can be effective and won't be effective, it's decision time. Is the sugar tax truly effective against obesity? Well, the answer is yes…kind of. Hear me out.
The best way to use the sugar tax as a means of taking on obesity across the UK is to use it alongside other methods. On it's own the sugar tax isn't the holy grail of obesity cures. No amount of oversees studies can change that because at the end of the day each case is different and will never reflect identical results when used in different places, at different times, with different people.
A sugar tax is one piece of a larger puzzle when taking on obesity across the nation. If used in conjunction with other anti-obesity methods, such as healthier school menus, more access to education concerning nutrition and even the use of clinically proven obesity medication (e.g. Xenical) it can give the UK the best chance possible at winning the war against obesity in a safe and effective way.