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Would a ‘Sugar Tax’ Really Improve Public Health?

Talk of a sugar tax – particularly on fizzy drinks – has been bubbling for a while now. The persistent campaigning by Jamie Oliver to increase the price of products high in sugar to improve public health has divided opinion. In 2018 this tax will finally become reality. However, is there actually any evidence to suggest it would work? Or is it just another way to charge more under the guise of moral sanctimony?

Isolated Examples Suggest a ‘Sugar Tax’ Works

Being that Jamie Sugar taxOliver has been such a fervent supporter of the policy it’s no surprise that a version of it has already been introduced in his chain of restaurants. Since September 2015, 37 of Jamie’s Italian restaurants have been charging a 10p levy on sugary soft drinks. 12 weeks after the introduction of the charge, sales of these types of drinks had dropped by 11% and after six months sales were down by 9.3%. Despite this being an isolated example, it does suggest that there is potential for a sugar tax to be a means of reducing intake among a large group.

These statistics should still be approached with a healthy dose of caution, as there are other factors beyond the sugar tax that could have influenced the drop-in sales. The first of these is that the restaurants introduced low-sugar fruit juice that could be mixed with water, offering a choice that many other restaurants don’t provide. This could well have had a greater impact on the sales drop as there was something else available that people found appealing. Secondly, the stats didn’t include those who chose free tap water, which could have offered insight about how much price mattered.

Are There Alternative Methods to a Sugar Tax?sugar tax smoking

If the statistics were taken at face value then it would seem a sugar tax could reduce consumption of high sugar products. However, it seems that adapting people’s behaviour to make healthier choices could well be more effective. By providing more choice in the restaurants Jamie’s Italian managed to lower sugar intake and this subtle influencing of behaviour could be expanded to other areas.

Advertising is one area that could be targeted. We’ve seen that with smoking, the ban on advertising and introduction of warning messages and pictures has been a huge contributor to lowering the number of smokers. Of course, there are large taxes on tobacco products, but the demographic that smokes the most are the working class, suggesting that extra charges are less influential. By applying a similar approach to sugary products – perhaps a reduction in advertising – it could help lower sugar consumption, without the need to target people’s wallets through a sugar tax.

There is undoubtedly opposition to the entire concept of a sugar tax, or any kind of restriction on sugar. Many say that it’s up to individuals and parents to decide what they want to consume and sugar isn’t as inherently addictive as cigarettes. However, the ultimate goal is not to stop sugar being available, but instead to encourage healthier choices. Whether a sugar tax is really the best way to do this, or if there are other less financially focused methods, only time will tell.