Well, well, well — they actually did it! I for one didn’t believe they would have the nous to do so. In a shock move, the UK Government in their Budget statement last week announced the introduction of a sugar tax on soft drinks from April 2018.
This levy delighted health campaigners, but enraged the soft drinks industry, whose reaction has been somewhat churlish and doesn’t exactly cover them in glory. Their playground response of “why us and not them” doesn’t exactly endear them to the general populace, who are actively seeking healthier options. Although, they do have a point.
The levy proposes two bands of tax depending on sugar content. The lower band will see brands pay a tax on drinks that they produce or export containing 5g or more of sugar for every 100ml, while the higher band covers drinks containing 8g or more of sugar on every 100ml. Given that the recommended adult daily intake is 25g or 6 teaspoons, this seems reasonable once you’ve gotten over the fact of how much sugar some brands contain.
However, pure fruit juice and milk-based drinks are excluded from the tax, as is confectionery. This is what appears to have incensed the industry the most; that they alone have been targeted.
The proposed tax will seemingly raise £520 million, but this is already being questioned, as is the apparent £1 billion to enforce it. The monies will be used to fund sport in primary schools and at least a quarter of secondary schools.
Ever since the long awaited Public Health England (PHE) report ‘Sugar Reduction: the Evidence for Action’ was published last October, a furious debate has been raging. But the facts are compelling. The UK government has no choice but to act. Public health is a legitimate public concern.
Sugar should not provide more than 5% per cent of a person’s daily energy intake. The report exposed that both children and adults typically get between 15% (average 74.2g of sugar a day) and 12% (58.8g) respectively of their energy from sugar. The average five-year-old consumes their own body weight in sugar every year. Experts predict that within a generation more than half of all boys and 70% of girls will be overweight or obese. Today, obesity is costing the UK economy £27 billion a year — more than half the NHS pay bill. If this bill gets any larger, it will be unsustainable for both the economy and the health of our nation.
Why target soft drinks? The scientific evidence is overwhelming – to fight obesity, you have to fight sugar. A systematic review published in 2006 examining 50 years of studies found a clear link between consumption of sugary drinks and obesity. Subsequent studies have found similar results. Soft drinks (excluding fruit juice) are by far the largest source of sugar that children aged 11 to 18 years consume daily, providing 29% of their daily sugar intake. These are followed by table sugar (21%), confectionery (21%) and fruit juice (10%). There is a strong argument that these three categories should also be included and not exempt from the new sugar tax. At the same time, this would remove the discriminatory argument and possible legal challenge.
In both Mexico and Hungary, a sugar tax has had a small but significant impact on buying habits. In others, such as France, and the fat tax in Denmark, it isn’t so clear cut. How the tax will be implemented is still open to discussion.
Whether the UK consumer supports the tax is debatable. They are unlikely to support a tax that negatively impacts them, despite the health benefits. But 77% of UK consumers, according to research from Marketing Sciences, believe that manufacturers need to do more to reduce the sugar content in food and drink, with over half (52%) claiming to prefer branded products with a lower sugar content.
The soft drink industry knew this was coming, and has realigned its portfolio, with around half of the market already in no or low sugar versions. Furthermore, it has voluntarily reduced the sugar content in its remaining products by 13.6% since 2012, and has set itself a target of 20% by 2020. It has also probably done more than any other food and drink category to cut sugar from the UK diet.
It’s easy to see why they feel hard done by. But, it could have been worse. They have been given two years to get their act together. If they choose to focus their energy, attention and monies at expediting their own plans and targets, and get innovative rather than fighting it, they may well find that the tax threat provides the disruption the industry so desperately requires, and the tax becomes a non-issue. Spending the next two years in court benefits no-one, least of all the consumer. Instead, take responsibility and choose to see this as your greatest opportunity.
The naive argument is that a tax on sugary drinks won’t stop obesity, so why bother. No-one is suggesting that this is some kind of silver bullet. The fact is that the UK, like most other developed nations, consumes far more sugar than the human body actually needs. Soft drinks are flavoured sugared water, and do not add anything nutritionally to our diet. They are additive. They should be a treat, not a daily necessity. Something needed to be done and these are the first baby steps onto the path of readdressing this imbalance. The UK Government should be applauded, for once. My fervent wish is that they will actually follow through with the tax, and in addition will include the other “treat” categories!