A Closer Look at the Sugar Tax: Attacking Obesity at the Root or Shifting Responsibility off Manufacturers?

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2017 edition of CFGN’s quarterly magazine The Plot. Written by Natalie Szarek of Audacious Veg.

When a public campaign calls for measures to tackle childhood obesity and encourage healthy eating and physical activity, I expect to be in favour of it. You can’t really go wrong with those goals, can you? When hearing about various “sugar tax” initiatives, my gut instinct is to support them- I’d be happy to pay a few extra pennies every time I indulge my sugar craving, and all the better if those pennies go towards school sports. But when we actually examine the social assumptions and attitudes that create these campaigns- and are in turn reinforced by them- we really have to rethink whether this is a “step in the right direction” or actually making it more difficult for us to address the real causes of childhood obesity.

What is the Sugar Tax?

In the UK, the Sugar Tax has expanded from a public campaign by health and food advocates such as Sustain (the parent organisation of Capital Growth) and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver into government policy. From April 2018, soft drink manufacturers will be taxed for drinks containing above a certain level of sugar. The cost is expected to be passed onto the consumer, and will come to between 6p to 8p per can of soda, which the government says will fund sports activities in schools.

Why is the Sugar Tax seen as a solution?

Although poor people are more likely to be obese than wealthier people, unemployed people are between 4 to 6 times more likely to be unhealthily underweight than employed people. With the knowledge that poor people are more likely to have unhealthy weights and diets, we have to carefully examine our proposed solutions to this crisis to see whether the people being asked to solve the problem are the ones actually responsible for causing it. Rather than addressing the root causes of unhealthy eating habits – first and foremost poverty, reinforced by aggressive advertising and inadequate regulation of what goes into the food in the first place – the sugar tax places the responsibility of a public health crisis on the shoulders of poor individuals. And I don’t know about you, but making poor people pay for a crisis caused by mega corporations and left to run unchecked by elite politicians leaves a gross taste in my mouth.

Does the sugar tax work?

Proponents of the sugar tax claim that it is “tried and tested”, but evidence from around the world returns mixed results. A tax on saturated fat in Denmark was dropped due to studies showing that it wasn’t actually changing consumption habits for the better. Although in some countries a sugar tax resulted in decreased consumption of specific drinks, there’s no evidence to suggest that this led to improved health outcomes. We all know that unhealthy food often offers the highest number of calories for your money, or an easily accessible source of energy in a time-poor and overworked lifestyle. So decreased purchases of sodas could simply correlate to increased consumption of crisps, cigarettes or sweets.

Health experts claim that the best way to reduce childhood obesity is by reducing the content of sugar in drinks- not through taxation, but by regulation of drink contents. Paired with education and physical activity, health outcomes are much more likely to improve, and stay that way. We know that supporters of the sugar tax also support education and regulation, but the bottom line is that a huge amount of time, energy and money has been channeled towards this outcome- and it is neither fair nor tried and tested.

At a time when food banks are desperately overstretched due to skyrocketing poverty, it seems that a “solution” which proposes making anything more expensive, rather than making healthier food less expensive, does not fully comprehend that poverty is a real, and grim, reality in Britain.

Implementing a sugar tax tells people that rather than regulate what goes into drinks in the first place, we’d rather implement a regressive tax that hits poor people the hardest. Rather than making sure that education, sports and healthy food are an integral part of our schools and communities, the sugar tax represents a largely symbolic gesture that punishes poor people and labels them as the problem, whilst the businesses that created this mess remain untouched.

It’s time that we start offering solutions that place the responsibility squarely where it lies, and demands that the government muster the political will to implement the necessary changes. Too often a distrust of and disillusionment with politics means that we forego systemic analysis for an individual-based approach. If we continue to do this, we risk stripping the “good food” movement of its radical potential, and miss the opportunity to really change the role food plays in our communities.