Putting a tax of 7p on soda drinks could help cut childhood obesity, raise money for free school meals and give more children regular access to fruit and vegetables, a collective of some 60 health groups argues in backing a new report.
The report, issued by the food and farming charity Sustain, estimates that the government could raise as much as £1bn a year if it was to put a 7p tax on sugary drinks. That money, the report argues, could be used to pay for free school meals and, in addition, food literacy campaigns to encourage healthy eating habits.
The report, backed by organizations including the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Friends of the Earth, the National Heart Forum and the Royal Society for Public Health, echoes recommendations made in the U.S. by public health experts who believe that, according to the data they have analyzed, taxing sugary drinks in this manner could reduce soft drink consumption by as much as 8 to 10 percent, which they argue would be enough to slow the so-called obesity epidemic.
Sustain is urging chancellor George Osborne to introduce the duty in his March 20 budget, arguing that, as an extension of current taxes on cigarettes and alcohol that are meant to dissuade the public from buying the products in bulk, a 20p-per-litre levy could be put on larger bottles of fizzy drinks which in turn would serve to go some way toward offsetting the cost to the NHS for treating associated health problems like obesity and diabetes. The report estimates that diet-related illnesses cost the NHS around £6 billion a year.
Charlie Powell, Sustain’s campaigns manager, is quoted as saying that this recommendation is a necessary step that should test the government’s true commitment to public health: ”Sugar-laden drinks are mini health timebombs, contributing to dental diseases, obesity and a host of life-threatening illnesses which cost the NHS billions each year. We are delighted that so many organisations want to challenge the government to show it has a public health backbone by including a sugary drinks duty in budget 2013.”
Unsurprisingly, the head of The British Soft Drink Association, Gavin Partington, is less thrilled about the idea: “Sixty-one percent of soft drinks now contain no added sugar and we have seen soft drinks companies lead the way in committing to further, voluntary action as part of the government’s Responsibility Deal Calorie Reduction Pledge. … Putting up taxes even further will put pressure on people’s purses at a time when they can ill afford it. It’s worth noting that Denmark recently scrapped such a tax.”
Around 10p out of every 60 pence can of soda is taken by the government for VAT purposes. The alcohol industry may also lobby hard against this change given that much of their trade is underpinned by alcohol laced soft drinks and soda mixed cocktails.
While it is true that Denmark has decided to do away with its soda tax, countries such as Finland, Hungary and France, as well as a few states in the U.S., have employed such taxes, some with promising early starts.
So what are the chances of the UK adopting the levy? The Department of Health appears leery of adopting a legislative approach, favoring instead its “voluntary action” in encouraging businesses to act responsibly through incentives.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has also shown his distaste for a legislative remedy, calling such approaches a “blunt tool.” He believes a better focus would be on how supermarkets market fruit and vegetables.
Sadly, such action alone would seem woefully incapable of even making a dent in Britain’s rising childhood obesity problem. Even though a preemptive tax on sodas might be a hard drink to swallow for many, unless the government can come back with a meaningful alternative, it remains one of only a few serious attempts to solve the problem and as such cannot be easily dismissed.
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