Yesterday, Childhood Obesity News looked at Denmark’s attempt to institute a fat tax, and how its failure affected other countries. The United Kingdom also struggled with the issue. Early in 2013 a movement was afoot to tax soda, pop, sugar-sweetened beverages, SSBs, or what in England they apparently call soft drinks. The money that was raised would be used “to fund free fruit and meals in schools.”
The response of the British Soft Drink Association (read: industry lobbyists) was totally predictable: the soft drink companies are already doing their part, are committed to helpful voluntary action, can police themselves, and blah blah blah. As always, the gigantic corporations altruistically pleaded the case of the average, financially struggling consumer, whose life would be irremediably damaged by a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
Just the usual suspects saying the usual things, through their incredibly proficient public relations departments. However, journalist Michelle Roberts included a fact which, if literally true, must throw doubt onto what previously seemed self-evident:
Over the past 10 years, the consumption of soft drinks containing added sugar has fallen by 9% while the incidence of obesity has increased by 15%.
If this is so, then the conclusions that follow are awkward and difficult to explain. Empirically, pragmatically, there appears to be no point in taxing sugar. It is an unavoidable argument, and a sobering one. Because what if it doesn’t make any difference? What if the sugar merchants have been right all along?
Comparing Sugar to Tobacco
A year later, Britain was in the midst of an “Action on Sugar” campaign spearheaded by the University of Liverpool, under the motto “Sugar is the new tobacco.” The comparison references the tendency of the sugar cartel to be a “cynical industry focused [sic] on profit not health,” much like Big Tobacco. Also, there is an implication that heavy taxation might help to curb the sugar habit, as it apparently curbed the nicotine habit among smokers. The anti-sugar activists’ publicity says:
The major initial focus of the Action on Sugar group is to convince the food and drink industry and the Department of Health to adopt a reformulation programme to gradually reduce the amount of sugar added to all of their products.
In other words, the movement’s highest aspiration is to beg for a bit more self-policing, from an industry that has not been noticeably stellar at the task of keeping itself in line. Late in 2014, Britons learned that in the preceding 4 years, the United Kingdom’s obesity rate had increased by 40 percent.
After crunching some numbers, The Guardian stated that Britain’s obesity-based health bill of 47 billion pounds (or around $73 billion) was actually larger than its bill for “police and fire services, law courts, and prisons.” Compared to a different column of figures, the cost of obesity and diabetes also turned out to be more than the total expenditure to deal with armed violence/war/terrorism.
Commissioned to clarify the situation, McKinsey Global Institute issued a report that included 44 potential interventions that, if implemented, could allegedly return 20 percent of Britain’s overweight or obese people to normalcy within 5 or maybe 10 years. Among the recommendations was a 10 percent tax on high-sugar or high-fat food products.
Earlier this year, Lydia Willgress wrote for The Daily Mail about the ever-increasing number of what are called “exceptionally large babies” in the UK. The cutoff point for normal is 9 lbs., 15 oz., and heavier babies are classified as obese. It is no longer unusual to see a newborn weighing 12 or even 14 pounds. In many such cases, the obstetrical best practice is to deliver the child by Caesarean section, which adds to the National Health Service’s financial burden as another cost of obesity.
Since 2011, a large number of 2-year-olds (28 of them) and 3-year-olds (33 of them) have been admitted to British hospitals for obesity-related treatment. Among the 4- and 5-year-olds of Coventry, who are just starting school, 11 percent are already obese. Less than two months ago, the National Child Measurement Programme announced that the city had elementary school children weighing as much as 315 pounds. Within two weeks of that news, health minister George Freeman proposed that Britain should apply a tax to SSBs and snack foods, saying:
Where there is a product which confers costs on all of us as a society, as in sugar, then we could be looking at recouping some of that through taxation. Companies should know that if you insist on selling those products, we will tax them.
But thanks the Prime Minister and other high officials, food manufacturers know the exact opposite—their products will not be subject to a fat tax. So that’s that.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Call for soft drink sugar tax in UK,” BBC.co.uk, 01/28/13
Source: “”Sugar is the new tobacco” says expert,” liv.ac.uk, 01/09/14
Source: “Obesity bigger cost for Britain than war and terror,” TheGuardian.com, 11/20/14
Source: “Hundreds of babies are now being born clinically obese in the UK, shocking
new figures reveal,” DailyMail.co.uk, 03/02/15
Source: “22-stone Coventry children among heaviest in country,” ITV.com, 05/07/15
Source: “Tory minister’s call for Sugar Tax on snacks and fizzy drinks ruled out by No.10,”
Image by Ben Salter