The importance of the Sugar Tax (Soft Drinks Industry Levy) – by Helen Dickens
Helen Dickens, Assistant Director of Policy and Campaigns at Diabetes UK
You might have seen that last week Boris Johnson, who is currently favourite to become our next Prime Minister, promised to “halt the explosion of ‘sin stealth taxes’” if he gets into Number 10. Among the ‘sin taxes’ he mentions is the Sugar Tax (known officially as The Soft Drinks Industry Levy), which we campaigned for along with our partners in the Obesity Health Alliance before it was announced in 2016.
Mr Johnson, in his statement, cites these taxes’ lack of effectiveness, and asserts that they “target the poorest in society”. He promised a review into the existing taxes, and committed to not increasing or introducing any more of them if he becomes Prime Minister.
His assertion that the Sugar Tax targets the poorest in society misses the point. Its purpose is not to penalise customers, but to incentivise companies to reformulate their drinks and reduce the amounts of sugar in them, without costing consumers a penny.
What has the ‘Sugar Tax’ done?
This is exactly what the levy has done. According to the Treasury’s own assessment of how effective the levy was between its announcement and the date it came into effect:
“The tax on soft drinks, commonly referred to as the ‘Sugar Tax’, has already resulted in over 50% of manufacturers reducing the sugar content of drinks since it was announced in March 2016 – the equivalent of 45 million kg of sugar every year”
The Treasury’s assessment of the levy’s impact speaks for itself. Clearly it is making a difference in reducing the amount of sugar in drinks, which is helping to fight the obesity epidemic gripping the UK. Three in five adults in the UK are overweight or obese, and one in three children are overweight or obese before they leave primary school.
Bold and decisive action is needed to address this epidemic, which is affecting young and old alike. The Soft Drinks Industry levy is a vital part of the solution, but it cannot act in isolation. That’s why Diabetes UK has also been calling for a range of other measures to be introduced including mandating calorie labelling more widely and introducing a watershed on junk food marketing. We have also called for the levy to be strengthened by raising the rates businesses pay for drinks above the levy threshold, bringing the actual threshold down further, and including milk-based drinks in the levy.
Measures to combat obesity needed
We have been campaigning to help tackle the obesity epidemic because of the impact it is having on public health. It has driven an alarmingly rapid rise in the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes, a serious condition that can lead to amputation, sight loss and kidney damage. Obesity is also now the leading cause of cancer in the UK, ahead of smoking.
Measures intended to combat obesity, like the Sugar Tax, aren’t about the state telling people what to do or think. They’re about creating an environment which is conducive to healthy living. An environment in which the healthy choice is the easy choice. An environment which helps protect the health of young and old, rich and poor, alike.
When this government announced its ambitious and bold Childhood Obesity Plan Chapter 2, we were hopeful that it would take serious action to tackle obesity. However, it’s been more than a year since the plan was announced and we’re still waiting for the outcomes of the Government’s consultations on the various measures set out in the plan.
We hope to see the results of these consultations soon, ideally alongside the long-awaited Prevention Green Paper, which we hope will set out an ambitious vision for preventing Type 2 diabetes, amongst other health conditions, minimising the burden on our NHS and helping people live longer and healthier lives.
However, we also recognise that many people with Type 1 diabetes rely on sugary drinks to treat hypos. Because drinks companies often won’t publicise that they are reformulating their products, it’s vital that people who use sugary drinks to treat hypos regularly check the label of the product being used to make sure there’s enough sugar in it to suit your needs.
Mr Johnson, if he becomes Prime Minister, should heed the assessment of the Treasury, and recognise the impact the Sugar Tax has already made in the fight against obesity. Ending it would be a significant step backwards in this fight, which requires urgent and concerted action, not backtracking.