Posted on 11:33 17/01/2018
A couple of times a year the prospect of a sugar tax is raised....but what is a sugar tax, why should it be introduced and does it work?
What is a Sugar Tax?
A sugar tax is an additional tax which is placed on processed foods which have high levels of sugar. Soft drinks are the most common thing taxed by a sugar tax but it may extend to confectionery or even ice cream.
Unprocessed foods which contain natural sugars, such as fruit, are not usually included in a sugar tax. This would include fruit juice too but fruit juices which contain additional sugar may be taxed.
Why Introduce a Sugar Tax?
When I was a child, lunch was a sandwich and piece of fruit and dinner was meat, three or four vegetables and fruit for desert. We drank water or milk with our meals - soft drink was something you only had on special occasions.
Over the last thirty years, there has been a significant move away from unprocessed foods (such as fruit and vegetables) and increased consumption of processed foods particularly those containing large amounts of sugar. It is not unusual for both adults and children to include biscuits, a chocolate bar, ice cream and soft drink in lunch and dinner. These include significant amounts of sugar and when all added together, a high amount of sugar is being consumed daily.
While a small amount of sugar can contribute to giving us energy, large amounts are very detrimental to health. It may contribute to obesity, diabetes, liver and heart disease, dental disease and has been linked to Alzheimer's.
The foods that a sugar tax are placed on are usually high in kilojoules - particularly "empty kilojoules". This means that the food gives us energy due to the sugar but doesn't have other nutritional value such as provide protein or vitamins.
The aim of a sugar tax is to improve people's health, particularly to help them lose weight, by discourage them from eating or drinking foods which contain high amounts of sugar. By increasing the cost of sugary foods, such as soft drink, it makes it less attractive to people who are on a budget so they chose more healthy options such as fruit juice or water.
This is a similar argument used for tobacco products: by placing taxes on cigarettes and cigars it makes them so expensive that eventually people stop using them.
Who has a Sugar Tax?
Mexico was one of the first places to introduce a sugar tax. Now, over 26 countries have sugar taxes - mainly on soft drinks - include the United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal, France, Denmark, Thailand and the Philippines.
Does the Sugar Tax Work?
In asking if the sugar tax works, you need to define exactly what the tax is intended to achieve. If the intention is to decrease the amount of sugary soft drink being drunk, it would appear that it does work. One year after the tax was introduced in Mexico, it was reported that less soft drink was being consumed and more water was being drunk.
However, a reduction in the amount of soft drink being drunk will only be achieved if there is safe and cheap alternatives - that is, water that is clean and safe to drink. If people must drink bottled water and it is a similar price to the soft drink, there will be little incentive to stop drinking soft drink. I saw this occur in a small rural town in Australia: the tap water was not safe to drink, bottled water cost a dollar a bottle and a the same size bottle of soft drink was twenty cents more. Most people chose the soft drink.
There is no clear evidence that a sugar tax will contribute to a decrease in obesity and the incidence of diabetes in the community. This is partly because most taxes have not been in place long enough to prove this and also because there are many other things that impact on people's diets such as how much fatty food is eaten and the availability and affordability of fresh fruit and vegetables. Research from Duke University in the USA in 2010 suggested that the sugar tax may not contribute to a decrease in obesity and diabetes because many people will switch to other sweet drinks that aren't taxed such as fruit juice and flavoured milk.
One thing is certain: if people want to drink sugary soft drink, they will drink it regardless of the price and regardless of the impact on their health. A similar thing has been seen in smokers - despite the cost of cigarettes going up virtually annually, people still smoke.