Why a sugar tax is not the answer to Britain’s obesity problem

It is exercise that will fix Britain’s obesity – not an overcomplicated tax system


NHS chief executive Simon Stevens is proposing a 20 per cent tax on all sugary drinks and food in NHS cafes, to be introduced by 2020.

This comes just a week after David Cameron’s U turn on the issue, in which he refused to rule out a national sugar tax on drinks. However, the sugar tax will not work and may make things worse.

Britain is the fifth most obese nation in the OCED; falling behind only the US, Turkey, New Zealand and Australia. The proportion of overweight or obese adults in the UK increased between 1993 and 2012 from 57.6 per cent to 66.6 per cent among men and from 48.6 per cent to 57.2 per cent among women.

Worse, obesity is increasing in children. Now around one-in-ten children in Reception class are obese, and by the time they leave primary school it’s nearly one-in-five.

The implications of this are disastrous, both for individuals and for the NHS. Being overweight or obese can lead to other health problems such as diabetes, coronary heart disease and various cancers.

Nationally, the rising number of these health complications puts more pressure on the NHS. In fact, bad diet has recently overtaken smoking as the biggest single cause of lifestyle-linked avoidable illness the health service treats.

Cameron’s, and now the NHS’s, answer to this is a sugar tax. The argument goes that if sugary food and drinks have a higher tax, businesses will increase the prices of them. This will lead to fewer people buying them and, as a result, people will consume fewer calories – reducing the prevalence of obesity.

Unfortunately, this will not work. Experience of the sugar tax in other countries shows it has not worked. The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) looked at areas across the world that have adopted a sugar tax – including Hungary, Finland, France, some US states and Mexico – and found that it had, at most, a very marginal impact on reducing consumption.

The IEA found that people continued to buy the same or similar products,  but some sought cheaper brands or cheaper shops while others switched to other high calorie alternatives, like fruit juice. Thus, there was little change in calorie intake and – in some cases – people consumed inferior products.

Moreover, the tax would hit the poorest the hardest. IEA noted ‘any sugar tax would be highly regressive as the poor spend a much higher proportion of their income on the relevant products than the rich’.

Moreover, they found that even those who believed the sugar tax would work found that it would have its smallest impact on the poorest, who are ‘least responsive to changes in the price of soft drinks’.  

GP Dr Ellie Cannon agreed in an interview with Sky News, claiming that it’s a very ‘pejorative measure targeted at a particular group of people’.

Instead of imposing a tax with a poor proven track record the government should address the lack of physical activity in the UK.

The Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index finds that the UK currently has the third highest level of insufficient physical activity in the OECD (falling behind only New Zealand and Israel) and the 21st highest in the world.

The British Heart Foundation (2015) also found less British people (14 per cent) do exercise outside of sport than the EU average (15 per cent) and more British people (13 per cent) are sedentary for longer than 8.5 hours a day than the EU average (11 per cent).

For example, British men and women spend 2.8 hours watching television per weekday and three hours at the weekend. Similarly, comparing the UK with the Netherlands (which has the 6th lowest obesity levels in the OECD) indicates the importance of exercise.

The number of adults in the UK that engage in physical activity outside of sports is 14 per cent – in the Netherlands it is 44 per cent. In the UK 44 per cent of adults never do any moderate physical exercise, whereas only 14 per cent do not in the Netherlands.

Many have already argued that the rise in UK obesity is due to our modern lifestyles which increase inactivity. Our cars, our desk-bound jobs, our TVs and our computers have all added to our inactivity and, as a result, to our nation’s obesity.

Thus, while Cameron clutches at straws – with an idea he had previously ruled out – the country is getting fatter and no one is addressing the real problem: exercise.  

The government should look at ways to encourage a more active life: for example improving cycle lanes to make the concept of cycling to work less terrifying; and teaching children, in schools and at home, the importance of exercise and healthy living.

It is exercise that will fix Britain’s obesity – not an overcomplicated tax system

Abigail Watson is a research intern at the Legatum Institute

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