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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7 Responses to “Why a sugar tax is not the answer to Britain’s obesity problem”

  1. Ste

    I’d like to add a slightly dissenting opinion. I think a sugar tax can be a worthwhile tool in the efforts to reduce obesity – but it can’t be the only thing the Government do, and the other points on education are the best thing they can do to make a start.

    If a sugar tax is applied correctly, on the purchase of pure sugar by food manufacturers, then that leaves the manufacturers a choice – either pass on the cost to the consumer, who then effectively pays the sugar tax, or reduce the amount of sugar it uses in its products. In both scenarios, the consumer sees an end benefit, as either the food they eat becomes slightly more healthy, or the tax revenue increase goes towards funding of education programs in getting people to change their habits. It’s got to be a combination of all of the above, and ruling taxing sugar out at all is, in my opinion, a mistake. Whilst we find ways to get people eating less sugar, we also need to find ways to get food manufacturers to stop using unhealthy bulking agents in their foods. Like it or not, the processed food industry isn’t going away any time soon, and it’s about time we got a grip on their practices. We should have done so after the horse meat scandal.

    Many years ago, if you were poor you were likely to be thin. Nowadays, thanks to the availability of cheap processed foods, if you’re poor you’re more likely to be obese. Therein lies the problem – the balance of the food economy needs to be redressed so that fresh and non-processed foods are cheaper than processed foods.

    I note the author writes from her position at the Legatum Institute, which does lead me to believe there is a bias against taxation that comes not from evidential roots, but from ideological ones.

  2. Bradley B.

    Mud-slinging is not useful here. A sugar tax can be used to suppress demand. Problem is that artificial sweeteners may be as bad. Exercise could be as easily ridiculed as a sugar tax as lack of exercise is NOT the underlying cause in the majority of cases of obesity.

    The major cause of overeating is anxiety. Until that is acknowledged we will achieve little.

  3. RoyB

    The IEA is, of course, notorious for its love of Government intervention of any kind given its status as the leading advocate of “free” markets. So its research can be relied upon to be completely objective and free from bias or ideological preference.

    Having established that, it’s pretty clear that overeating is the major cause of obesity, and especially overeating of rubbish food stuffed with fat and sugar to disguise its rancid taste. Exercise can only ever play a small part in reducing obesity if calorie intake persistently exceeds calorie output. A small packet of peanuts would take about 2 hours of moderate exercise to burn off. Go figure. And just to cap it all, would the IEA be in favour of a law requiring all adults to take a couple of hours exercise a day? No, thought not.

  4. madasafish

    Many fat people don’t care.
    I watch their trolleys in Asda , stuffed with pastries and fizzy drinks.

    Putting a tax on sugar will make no difference- anyone heard of Food Banks?
    To suggest a tax will make any difference shows a woeful ignorance of the UK Welfare System – usually by people who should know better..

    The only way to lose weight is to eat less… and exercise.
    Most fatties eat more and do no exercise and see no need to change their ways. And never will unless compelled to do so – by financial means if nothing else.

    So close food banks to the obviously fat for a start so they cannot cheat.

    All the words are meaningless unless you compel people to eat less. Look how many smoke despite it being obvious it’s dangerous to health. And guess what: people still smoke.

    I suggest decriminalising drugs instead: that helps people lose weight..(Yes I am serious)..
    It will also increase Tax revenues- by a lot.

  5. CynicalEng

    Sugar is already an expensive ingredient, compared to starch. Diet drinks are cheaper to produce and hence more profitable as sold at the same price. I don’t see a 20% tax on bulk industrial sugar as relevant, the price has changed by a lot more than that over years with no impact on formulations as they already seek to minimise use.

    Making diet drinks zero rated for VAT would give a price differential to favour their consumption, rather than adding a tax to the sugary version. That would fit an anti-taxation agenda too.

  6. Woo11

    introducing a tax on high sugar content foods and drinks is a bad idea – food and drink needs to be kept tax free so dont lets go down that slippery slope. Whilst I agree that we dont as a nation do nearly enough exercise, that is not the only problem. Food insecurity? Has Abigail Watson not even glanced at the research on this? The common dietary patterns? And what percentage of the population that is obese is affected by food insecurity? Whilst this group does not make up the 64% of adults in the UK who are classified as overweight or obese, I think that telling this group of people to do more exercise is going to have them laughing in your face, and rightly so. As for those who can afford a decent diet – yeah get on yer bike!!! When you have the time and energy that is!

  7. Jan Podsiadly

    It is likely that Osborne knows the argument that taxing sugary drinks will not prevent obesity. However it will bring the taxes rolling in as consumption will not be affected greatly. Win win for Osborne.

    Having said that, exercise is only part of the answer. Consider the fact that 1 in 10 children in Reception class are already obese. Obesity clearly starts in the home with bad habits extending throughout childhood. Exercise alone may combat some effects of a poor diet but diet must also be addressed. The solution is in promoting effective lifestyle. For the most part children are taught healthy eating at school and there are a wide variety of health promotions aimed at them but pester power does not extend to the home where parents find the quickest and cheapest solutions to feeding and if the smart phone or computer will keep children occupied then job done.
    Eliminating poverty is the key to addressing obesity and promoting healthy lifestyles.

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