Calls for a Tax on Sugar


Over recent years, the obesity in the UK has escalated. Adults eat and drink on average three times the amount of sugar that health experts recommend. Almost two-third of UK men and women are either obese or overweight.


The UK government is finally considering the implications that excessive consumption of sugar may be having on public health. Public Health England’s recent report suggests that a 5% reduction of total energy intake per person in five years would prevent 4,700 deaths per year and 242,000 cases of tooth decay per year whilst saving the NHS £576 million per year. These are statistics that the government can no longer ignore.


Much like smoking, the effects of excessive sugar are not confined to the individual. The high costs of treatment for related diseases is adding to the burden of costs that the NHS is struggling to fund. The opportunity cost is therefore great and such money could have otherwise been spent on improving the lives of individuals’ suffering from unavoidable diseases. This negative externality associated with the excessive consumption of sugar demonstrates the need for government action to be taken.


Consumers will not react without incentives. Some form of sugar tax seems to be the answer to this. A report by the Commons' Health Committee said there is ‘compelling evidence’ that a tax on sugar would reduce consumption, along with greater regulations on the marketing and advertising of sugary food.


Some may be reluctant at the implementation of such a tax, suggesting that the state may be meddling too much in personal affairs. Yet there are already taxes on many goods that the government considers to be harmful for society at large, including cigarettes and alcohol, so why should sugar be any different?


It seems unsurprising that those in the food and drinks industry are resisting the change. They argue that a tax will do little to change consumer habits and reduce consumption. This could be possible if producers were willing to absorb the tax burden or consumption were particularly inelastic to price changes. However, Mexico introduced a similar 10% tax on fizzy drinks last year, which been followed by a 12 % fall in consumption.


Admittedly, a flat tax would likely have regressive effects and thus have an unequal impact on different income groups. Those on lower incomes generally consume a higher proportion of sugary foods and drinks, which therefore constitute a large part of their disposable incomes. An increase in prices of such goods, would thereby have greater financial implications for poorer households. But the health committee report suggests that those on lower incomes are more likely to be effected by obesity and the tax could help to incentivise them to choose cheaper zero-sugar alternatives.


Although a sugar tax is a necessary policy to reduce excessive consumption and obesity, the government must also recognise that a comprehensive strategy involving other policies needs to be implemented. Additional tax revenue could be invested to increase the zero-sugar alternatives available to consumers and increase general awareness of the health effects that sugar can have. In order to sustain a reduction in sugar consumption into the long term, consumer habits need to be addressed. A tax will help to do so, however, the next generation must also receive proper health education, in order to encourage them to cultivate healthier, lifelong eating habits.


The government must now not only recognise this need to address sugar consumption, but also act on it to stop the UK’s escalating obesity issue.