Back in October, we looked at the growing pressure in the UK for a sugar tax. The issue of childhood obesity was considered by the Parliamentary Health Select Committee and a sugar tax, either on sugar generally, or specifically on soft drinks, was one of the proposals being considered to tackle the problem. The committee studied a report by Public Health England, which stated that:
Research studies and impact data from countries that have already taken action suggest that price increases, such as by taxation, can influence purchasing of sugar sweetened drinks and other high sugar products at least in the short-term with the effect being larger at higher levels of taxation.
In his Budget on 16 March, the Chancellor announced that a tax would be imposed on manufacturers of soft drinks from April 2018. This will be at a rate of 18p per litre on drinks containing between 5g and 8g of sugar per 100ml, such as Dr Pepper, Fanta and Sprite, and 24p per litre for drinks with more than 8g per 100ml, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Red Bull.
Whilst the tax has been welcomed by health campaigners, there are various questions about (a) how effective it is likely to be in reducing childhood obesity; (b) whether it will be enough or whether other measures will be needed; and (c) whether it is likely to raise the £520m in 2018/19, falling to £455m by 2020/21, as predicted by the Treasury: money the government will use for promoting school sport and breakfast clubs.
These questions are all linked. If demand for such drinks is relatively inelastic, the drinks manufacturers will find it easier to pass the tax on to consumers and the government will raise more revenue. However, it will be less effective in cutting sugar consumption and hence in tackling obesity. In other words, there is a trade off between raising revenue and cutting consumption.
This incidence of tax is not easy to predict. Part of the reason is that much of the market is a bilateral oligopoly, with giant drinks manufacturers selling to giant supermarket chains. In such circumstances, the degree to which the tax can be passed on depends on the bargaining strength and skill of both sides. Will the supermarkets be able to put pressure on the manufacturers to absorb the tax themselves and not pass it on in the wholesale price? Or will the demand be such, especially for major brands such as Coca-Cola, that the supermarkets will be willing to accept a higher price from the manufacturers and then pass it on to the consumer?
Then there is the question of the response of the manufacturers. How easy will it be for them to reformulate their drinks to reduce sugar content and yet still retain sales? For example, can they produce a product which tastes like a high sugar drink, but really contains a mix between sugar and artificial sweeteners – effectively a hybrid between a ‘normal’ and a low-cal version? How likely are they to reduce the size of cans, say from 330ml to 300ml, to avoid raising prices?
The success of the tax on soft drinks in cutting sugar consumption depends on whether it is backed up by other policies. The most obvious of these would be to impose a tax on sugar in other products, including cakes, biscuits, low-fat yoghurts, breakfast cereals and desserts, and also many savoury products, such as tinned soups, ready meals and sauces. But there are other policies too. The Public Health England report recommended a national programme to educate people on sugar in foods; reducing price promotions of sugary food and drink; removing confectionery or other sugary foods from end of aisles and till points in supermarkets; setting broader and deeper controls on advertising of high-sugar foods and drinks to children; and reducing the sugar content of the foods we buy through reformulation and portion size reduction.
- Sugar tax: How it will work?
BBC News, Nick Triggle (16/3/16)
- Will a sugar tax actually work?
The Guardian, Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett (16/3/16)
- Coca-Cola and other soft drinks firms hit back at sugar tax plan
The Guardian, Sarah Butler (17/3/16)
- Sugar tax could increase calories people consume, economic experts warn
The Telegraph, Kate McCann, and Steven Swinford (17/3/16)
- Nudge, nudge! How the sugar tax will help British diets
Financial Times, Anita Charlesworth (18/3/16)
- Is the sugar tax an example of the nanny state going too far?
Financial Times (19/3/16)
- Government’s £520m sugar tax target ‘highly dubious’, analysts warn
The Telegraph, Ben Martin (17/3/16)
- Sorry Jamie Oliver, I’d be surprised if sugar tax helped cut obesity
The Conversation, Isabelle Szmigin (17/3/16)
- Sugar sweetened beverage taxes
What Works for Health (17/12/15)
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for sugary drinks in general (as opposed to one particular brand)?
- How are drinks manufacturers likely to respond to the sugar tax?
- How are price elasticity of demand and supply relevant in determining the incidence of the sugar tax between manufacturers and consumers? How is the degree of competition in the market relevant here?
- What is meant by a socially optimal allocation of resources?
- If the current consumption of sugary drinks is not socially optimal, what categories of market failure are responsible for this?
- Will a sugar tax fully tackle these market failures? Explain.
- Is a sugar tax progressive, regressive or proportional? Explain.
- Assess the argument that the tax on sugar in soft drinks may actually increase the amount that people consume.
- The sugar tax can be described as a ‘hypothecated tax’. What does this mean and is it a good idea?
- Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a tax on sugar in soft drinks with (a) banning soft drinks with more than a certain amount of sugar per 100ml; (b) a tax on sugar; (c) a tax on sugar in all foods and drinks.
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)
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)
- What factors are driving the current high consumption of sugar?
- How is the concept of price elasticity of demand relevant to the effectiveness of imposing a sugar tax?
- What would determine the incidence of such a tax between food and drink manufacturers and consumers?
- Would such a tax be progressive, regressive or neutral? Explain.
- What other policies could be pursued to discourage the consumption of sugar? Discuss their likely effectiveness and compare them with a sugar tax.
- 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?
- Examine the objections to imposing a sugar tax.
A big expenditure for many households is petrol. The price of petrol is affected by various factors, but the key determinant is what happens in the oil market. When oil prices rise, this pushes up the price of petrol at the pumps. But, when they fall, do petrol prices also fall? That is the question the government is asking.
The price of oil is a key cost of production for companies providing petrol and so when oil prices rise, it shifts the supply curve up to the left and hence prices begin to increase. We also see supply issues developing with political turmoil, fears of war and disruption and they have a similar effect. As such, it is unsurprising that petrol prices rise with concern of supply and rising costs. But, what happens when the opposite occurs? Oil prices have fallen significantly: by a quarter. Yet, prices at the pump have fallen by around 6%. This has caused anger amongst customers and the government is now urging petrol retailers to pass their cost savings from a lower price of oil onto customers. Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury said:
“I believe it’s called the rocket-and-feather effect. The public have a suspicion that when the price of oil rises, pump prices go up like a rocket. But when the price of oil falls, pump prices drift down like a feather … This has been investigated before and no conclusive evidence was found. But even if there were a suspicion it could be true this time it would be an outrage.”
However, critics suggest that tax policy is partly to blame as 63% of the cost of petrol is in the form taxation through fuel duty and VAT. Therefore even if oil prices do fall, the bulk of the price we pay at the pumps is made up of tax revenue for the government. Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation said:
“It’s a simple story. Before tax we have just about the cheapest petrol and diesel in Europe. After tax we have just about the most expensive … It’s right to keep the pressure on fuel retailers but if drivers want to know what’s behind the high pump prices of recent years all they have to do is follow the trail back to the Treasury … if ministers are serious about reducing fuel prices further then they should cut duty further.”
(Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
However, even taking out the fuel duty and VAT, Arthur Renshaw, an analyst at Experian has said that the actual price of petrol has fallen by 21% since last year. Still, a much bigger decrease than we have seen at the pumps. One further reason for this may be the fact that dollars is the currency in which oil is traded. The pound has been relatively weak, falling by almost 7% over the past few months and hence even though the price of oil has fallen, the effect on UK consumers has been less pronounced.
The big supermarkets have responded to government calls to cut petrol prices, but how much of this cut was influenced by the government and how much was influenced by the actions of the other supermarkets is another story. A typical oligopoly, where interdependence is key, price wars are a constant feature, so even if one supermarket cut petrol prices, this would force others to respond in kind. If such price wars continue, further price cuts may emerge. Furthermore, with oil production still at such high levels, this market may continue to put downward pressure on petrol prices. Certainly good news for consumers – we now just have to wait to see how long it lasts, with key oil producing countries, such as Russia taking a big hit. The following articles consider this story.
Supermarkets cut fuel prices again The Telegraph, Nick Collins (6/11/14)
Petrol retailers urged to cut prices in line with falling oil costs The Guardian, Terry Macalister (6/11/14)
Supermarkets cut petrol prices after chancellor’s criticism Financial Times, Michael Kavanagh (6/11/14)
Governent ‘watching petrol firms’ Mail Online (6/11/14)
Our horrendous tax rates are the real reason why petrol is still so expensive The Telegraph, Allister Heath (6/11/14)
Osborne ‘expects’ fuel price drop after fall in oil price BBC News (6/11/14)
Danny Alexander tells fuel suppliers to pass on oil price cuts to drivers The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (5/11/14)
Further UK fuel cuts expected as pound strengthens The Scotsman, Alastair Dalton (6/11/14)
Spot oil prices Energy Information Administration
Weekly European Brent Spot Price Energy Information Administration (Note: you can also select daily, monthly or annual.)
Annual Statistical Bulletin OPEC
- Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate the impact that a fall in the price of oil should have on the price of petrol.
- What is the impact of a tax on petrol?
- Why is petrol a market that is so heavily taxed? You should think about the incidence of taxation in your answer.
- Why does the strength of the pound have an impact on petrol prices in the UK and how much of the oil price is passed onto customers at the pumps?
- Does the structure of the supermarket industry help customers when it comes to the price of petrol? Explain your answer.
- Militant action in some key oil producing countries has caused fears of oil disruption. Why is that oil prices don’t reflect these very big concerns?
Why are 43 companies in the pub and restaurant sector in the UK donating over a £1 million to an 86 year old Frenchman who claims to work a 70 hour week? Jacques Borel has led an interesting and varied life which has included activities such as helping the French resistance in the 2nd world war and opening the first take-away hamburger restaurant in France in 1961. In 2001 he started a campaign to get the European Union to allow member states to reduce the rate of VAT applied to food and drink sold in the pub, hotel and restaurant industry. Organisations such as JD Wetherspoon, Heineken and Pizza Hut are backing his attempts to persuade the UK government of the benefits of this policy.
VAT is paid when goods and services are purchased and is normally included in the price advertised by the seller. It generates a significant amount of money for the UK government and it is estimated that it will raise £102 billion in 2012-13 – the third biggest source of revenue after income tax and national insurance contributions. It is applied at three different rates in the UK – a standard rate of 20%, a reduced rate of 5% and a zero rate i.e. 0%. This may sound straightforward but in reality the tax is extremely complicated as previously discussed in articles on this website . For example most basic or staple items of food sold in shops are zero rated. However there are some rather bizarre exceptions. For example a packet of potato crisps is subject to the standard rate of VAT whereas tortilla chips are not. The standard rate is applied to a packet of Wotsits whereas a zero rate is applied to a packet of Skips!
The campaign headed by Mr Borel focuses on the discrepancy between the zero-rate applied to most food items purchased from a shop and the standard rate applied to food purchased in restaurants or cafes. For example, if you buy a Pizza from a supermarket then you don’t pay any tax on this purchase, whereas if you eat a pizza in a restaurant the standard 20% rate of VAT is applied. Mr Borel is lobbying the UK government to reduce the rate of VAT paid in pubs and restaurants from the standard rate of 20% to the reduced rate of 5%. One reason why so many UK companies are willing to offer him financial support is because of his success in getting governments in other countries such as Germany, Belgium, Finland and France to adopt this policy.
In a recent radio interview Mr Borel was asked to make his case for the proposed reduction of VAT in the UK. He claimed:
I have a commitment from 125 chains of hotels, restaurants and independents to use 60% of the reduction in VAT to lower prices so that would be a 7.5% decrease in price. When you decrease price by that magnitude you will see an increase in customers of 10-12% and you will be forced to hire new staff. In our best case scenario, we plan to create 670,000 jobs in three years.
When asked in another interview why the hospitality sector should be favoured more than others he replied that:
It would create more jobs in a minimal amount of time…you cannot do that with any other industry.
One obvious drawback of the policy would be the loss of revenue for the UK government. Some estimates have suggested that the loss of VAT receipts would be between £5.5 and £7.8 billion. However it has been claimed that over time the impact of the change on government finances would be zero. In response to the proposed tax cut a Treasury spokesman commented:
Any reduced rates would make a significant impact on revenue and, as a significant proportion of spending in these areas is by UK residents, any increase in activity in these areas would largely be at the expense of other consumer spending.
Jacques Borel: VAT cut for pubs Morning Advertiser on YouTube (18/5/11)
Industry VAT campaigner Jacques Borel appears on Radio Four’s Today and Radio Five Propelinfo (24/4/13)
French veteran in fight to cut pub VAT Financial Times, Christopher Thompson (5/6/12)
The fiscal impact of reduced VAT rates VAT Club Jobs (22/4/13)
Pub and restaurant groups pay 86-year-old Frenchman £1m to convince UK government to cut VAT The Mail on Sunday, Sarah Bridge (20/4/13)
French veteran seeks British jobs boost with VAT Reuters (17/1/13)
- In his radio interview Jacques Borel claims that if firms pass on 60% of the cut in VAT this would cause a 7.5% reduction in prices. Explain why this is the case. Clearly outline any assumptions you have made in the analysis
- If 60% of the reduction was passed on by firms through lower prices, what do you think would happen to the money generated from the other 40% of the reduction?
- Using a demand and supply diagram illustrate the proposed reduction in the rate of VAT on the hospitality industry. Make sure your diagram is drawn in such a way that it clearly illustrates producers passing on 60% of the tax reduction in the form of lower prices.
- Assuming that the hospitality industry was very competitive, what impact would a reduction in VAT have on consumer surplus, producer surplus and deadweight welfare loss?
- Explain any assumptions you have in your answer to question 3 about the price elasticity of demand and supply.
- Using the figures provided in the radio interview is it possible to calculate the price elasticity of demand. Try making the calculation and clearly explain any assumptions you have made.
- Explain why the reduction in VAT might have no net effect on government finances in the long run?
- What factors determine the price elasticity of supply? What assumption is Mr Borel making about the price elasticity of supply in the hospitality industry compared to other industries when he makes the claim that jobs would be created quickly?
- Outline some of the arguments against cutting the rate of VAT.
Last October (2011) we considered the case for a Tobin tax: also known as a financial transactions tax (FTT) or a ‘Robin Hood tax’. Since then there have been increased calls for the world to adopt such a tax.
It was promoted by President Sarkozy and supported by many other leaders at the G20 conference in Cannes on 3 and 4 November 2011. It has also been publicly supported by Bill Gates, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Vatican, as you can see from the video clips and articles below. It is also one of the demands of protesters at St Pauls in London and at other places around the world.
However, the introduction of such a tax is vehemently opposed by many banks and by the US, UK, Canadian and Australian governments, amongst others. In the articles below, we consider the latest arguments that are being used on both sides. With such strong feelings it looks as if the arguments are not going to go away.
On 29 January 2012, French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, announced plans to introduce a 0.1% levy on financial transactions. Naturally, by taking the lead, he hopes that other EU countries will follow suit. The final set of articles consider his move.
What is a Tobin Tax? BBC News, Andrew Walker (2/11/11)
Rowan Williams: St Paul’s protest has ‘triggered awareness’ BBC News (2/11/11)
Bill Gates explains his support for a Tobin tax BBC News (2/11/11)
Robin Hood tax: What is the Tobin tax? BBC Newsnight, Andrew Verity (17/11/11)
Q&A: What is the Tobin Tax on financial trading BBC News (2/11/11)
Head-to-head: the Robin Hood tax BBC News, Gemma Godfrey and Prof Avinash Persaud (9/12/11)
Time for us to challenge the idols of high finance Financial Times, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (1/11/11)
Gates says ‘Robin Hood’ tax has part to play Financial Times, Chris Giles (3/11/11)
Sarkozy Pledges Fight for Transaction Tax Bloomberg, Rebecca Christie and Helene Fouque (4/11/11)
Financial Transaction or Speculation Taxes: Not Quite What They Seem Forbes, Tim Worstall (4/11/11)
Is a Robin Hood Tax the Answer? Forbes, Kelly Phillips Erb (3/11/11)
Bill Nighy takes Robin Hood tax to the G20 Guardian, Patrick Wintour and Larry Elliott (3/11/11)
G20 tax moves disappoint charities Press Association (4/11/11)
Jamaica should support the Robin Hood Tax Jamaica Observer (6/11/11)
World Leaders Need to Agree to the Robin Hood Tax at G20 Huffington Post, Bill Nighy (3/11/11)
Obama, the G20, and the 99 Percent Huffington Post, Jeffrey Sachs (1/11/11)
Now is the moment to bring banks to heel This is Money, Jeffrey Sachs (3/11/11)
Note on financial reform from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace The Vatican Today
Tobin Tax would cost £25.5bn and cause job losses says think-tank London loves Business, Rebecca Hobson (4/11/11)
The Spurious Case Against A Financial Transactions Tax – Analysis Eurasia Review, Dean Baker (2/11/11)
Sarkozy Says France to Impose Transaction Tax From August Bloomberg Businessweek, Helene Fouquet and Mark Deen (30/1/12)
Struggling Sarkozy unveils financial transactions tax Sydney Morning Herald, AFP (30/1/12)
Sarkozy announces French financial transaction tax BBC News (30/1/12)
French president announces unilateral financial transaction tax Deutsche Welle Spencer Kimball, Andrew Bowen and Nicole Goebel (30/1/12)
- What are the main arguments in favour of a financial transactions tax?
- What are the main arguments against a financial transactions tax?
- To what extent is the debate a normative one and to what extent could evidence be used to support one side or the other?
- What would determine the extent to which the tax would be passed on to consumers?
- Would a financial transactions tax impede growth? Explain.
- Would financial intermediation be made more efficient by the imposition of such a tax?