Experts debate on sugar tax’s ability to help combat obesity

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In an article on the BMJ, experts debate whether sugar tax could help authorities fight the obesity menace and whether this measure alone is sufficient to control the growing population of obese people.

The debate follows a recent call by the British Medical Association (BMA) to impose a 20 per cent sugar tax to tackle obesity and to use this extra money to subsidise the cost of fruit and vegetables.

There are those who advocate imposition of such tax while accepting is it not the only option that will help curb obesity and those on the other side of the aisle claim that imposition of taxes isn’t the way to go and that such schemes do not really help curb obesity to desired levels.

Sirpa Sarlio-Lähteenkorva, adviser at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in Finland is a pro-tax expert who says that specific tax on sugar would reduce consumption. She bases her argument on the success achieved by countries who have already imposed such taxes and says that that is evidence that taxes on soft drinks, sugar, and snacks can change diets and improve health, especially in lower socioeconomic groups.

Taxes on specific food categories that are common constituents of poor diets “are practicable because they are simple to administer,” she adds.

However, she does add that taxing sugar isn’t the only solution and it is more or a partial solution. She suggests that a sugar tax on all products may be a more acceptable option because such a step will bring all sources of sugar on equal footing and all sources will be treated equally.

“It could also stimulate reformulated products, with less sugar and hence liable for less tax”, she adds.

In Finland, the Sugar Tax Working Group recently concluded that the current system of using excise duty is most practicable. “A combination of excise duty for key sources of sugar with tax adjusted based on sugar content would optimally promote health – and product reformulation.”

Nevertheless, Professor Sarlio-Lähteenkorva points out that taxes for health face many challenges, as recently seen with Denmark’s short experiment with a tax on saturated fat, which seems to have reduced consumption of fats by 10-15% but worries about border trade and lobbing by industry led to its withdrawal. The food industry also argues that consumption taxes are ineffective, unfair, and damage the industry.

“We need fiscal policies that take health seriously,” she writes. “Governments must tackle the related adverse health effects, such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, and hypertension. A tax on sugar, preferably with measures that target also saturated fat and salt, and incentives for healthy eating, would help,” she concludes.

Jack Winkler, emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, isn’t impressed. Though he acknowledged that such taxes would be a positive development in principle, but he says that such a measure is not only politically unpalatable, but it would have to be enormous to have any effect.

Citing the development in US, Winkler notes that only one city has soft drinks taxes, while only four of 53 states in WHO-Europe have adopted food taxes, all with the stated aim of raising revenue, not improving health.

Food taxes are also economically ineffective, he adds. Two rigorous UK studies found that a 10% tax would reduce average personal daily intake by 7.5 mL (less than a sip), while a 20% tax would reduce consumption by 4 kcal. “Effects of this size will not reverse global obesity,” he argues.

He suggests that cutting product margins on sugar-free soft drinks would be a positive alternative, which would make the healthy choice the cheaper choice – and would would boost companies’ profit.

He points out that before and after the recent UK election, government spokespeople stated repeatedly that there will be no new food taxes and immediately rejected the BMA’s proposal.

Why are we still debating this idea, he asks? “Nutrition policy needs price instruments, but a more positive selection. Sugar taxes are unlikely to be adopted and would not make much difference anyway,” he concludes.