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A sweet tax?

Obesity is on the rise, especially in children. With all the attendant health problems, concern is growing and various policies have been proposed to try to tackle the problem. One such policy is a sugar tax. This could be either a universal tax on sugar in food products or a tax just on soft drinks, many of which are very high in sugar – typically about seven teaspoons in a can or individual bottle.

Currently the issue is being considered by the UK’s Parliamentary Health Select Committee. Jamie Oliver, the TV chef and restaurateur, argued strongly before the committee in favour of a sugar tax on fizzy drinks. He has already imposed a levy on soft drinks with added sugar in his restaurants. He maintained that it was not just the higher price from a sugar tax that would deter consumption of such drinks, but it would send out an important message that too much sugar is bad for you.

Two days later, Dr Alison Tedstone appeared before the committee. She is chief nutritionist at Public Health England. PHE has been carrying out research into obesity and ways of tackling it. It has reviewed two types of evidence: experimental data on the effects of imposing higher prices on products with added sugar; and the effects of policies pursued in other countries. She stated to the committee that ‘universally all the evidence shows that the tax does decrease consumption’ and that ‘the higher the tax increase, the greater the effect’.

The government was not planning to publish the report at this stage, but under considerable pressure agreed to its publication.

The articles look at the prospects for a sugar tax, its likely effects if one were introduced and at the politics of the situation, which are likely to result in such a tax being rejected.

Videos and audio podcasts
Can you be trusted to eat less sugar? BBC News, Hugh Pym (22/10/15)
‘Introduce sugar tax’, health officials tell government Channel 4 News, Victoria Macdonald (22/10/15)
Jamie Oliver: ‘Bold’ sugar tax to beat childhood obesity BBC News, Hugh Pym (19/10/15)
Be bold on sugar tax, Jamie Oliver says BBC News, Nick Triggle (19/10/15)
Health scientists’ links with sugar industry queried BBC News, Dominic Hughes (12/2/15)
Mexico’s soda tax is starting to change some habits, say health advocates PRI’s The World on YouTube, Jill Replogle (2/12/14)

Articles
Jeremy Hunt told sugar tax would cut childhood obesity as review Government tried to suppress is published Independent, Charlie Cooper (20/10/15)
Sugar tax could help solve Britain’s obesity crisis, expert tells MPs The Guardian, Ben Quinn (21/10/15)
Jamie Oliver ‘expects kicking’ over sugar tax The Guardian, Jessica Elgot (22/10/15)
Sugar tax, fat fines and gold coins: new ways cities are tackling obesity The Guardian, Sarah Johnson (22/10/15)
Sugar tax and offers ban ‘would work’ BBC News (22/10/15)
Public Health England tells UK government: Sugar taxes do work FoodNavigator.com, Niamh Michail (21/10/15)
Childhood Obesity Partially Down To The Coco Pops Monkey, Sugar Tax Report Claims Huffington Post, Sarah Ann Harris (21/10/15)
Health officials back a sugar tax – and want the Coco Pops monkey banned The Telegraph, Laura Donnelly (20/10/15)
Jeremy Hunt embroiled in row over sugar tax report The Telegraph, Laura Donnelly (11/10/15)
Revealed: ‘Sugar tax report’ which was suppressed by Government The Telegraph, Laura Donnelly (22/10/15)
Public Health England obesity report: the key points The Guardian, James Meikle (22/10/15)
Cameron says no to sugar tax Mail Online, Jason Groves and Daniel Martin (21/10/15)
Sugar tax: Former health minister backs levy to prevent NHS ‘obesity crisis’ Independent, Charlie Cooper (21/10/15)

Journal articles and reports
Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action Public Health England, Dr Alison Tedstone, Victoria Targett, Dr Rachel Allen and staff at PHE (22/10/15)
Effects of a fizzy drink tax on obesity rates estimated NHS CHoices (1/11/13)
Overall and income specific effect on prevalence of overweight and obesity of 20% sugar sweetened drink tax in UK: econometric and comparative risk assessment modelling study British Medical Journal, Adam D M Briggs, Oliver T Mytton, Ariane Kehlbacher, Richard Tiffin, Mike Rayner and Peter Scarborough (2013;347:f6189)
Perspectives: Time for a sugary drinks tax in the UK? Journal of Public Health, Oliver Mytton (29/5/14)
Sugar reduction: Responding to the challenge Public Health England, Dr Alison Tedstone, Ms Sally Anderson and Dr Rachel Allen and staff at PHE (June 2014)

Questions

  1. What factors are driving the current high consumption of sugar?
  2. How is the concept of price elasticity of demand relevant to the effectiveness of imposing a sugar tax?
  3. What would determine the incidence of such a tax between food and drink manufacturers and consumers?
  4. Would such a tax be progressive, regressive or neutral? Explain.
  5. What other policies could be pursued to discourage the consumption of sugar? Discuss their likely effectiveness and compare them with a sugar tax.
  6. What externalities are involved in sugar consumption? How would you set about measuring them? Should a sugar tax be set at a rate that internalises the estimated externalities?
  7. Examine the objections to imposing a sugar tax.
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