"The UK should introduce a levy on sugary drinks"

PUBLISHED: 29 Jan 2016

AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng

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Amid new advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which recommends that we halve our daily sugar intake to 5% of total calories consumed per day [Ref: BBC News], celebrity chef Jamie Oliver made headlines last summer when he publically called for a levy on sugary drinks in the UK. He argued such a tax would be “deeply symbolic”, and would go some way towards helping to alleviate childhood obesity in the UK [Ref: BBC News]. Although the government has so far resisted calls for a sugar tax, debate about how to deal with the cost of lifestyle illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes in children and adults, has polarised opinion. For some, the idea of a sugar tax makes perfect sense and, whilst difficult to implement, would “mark official recognition of growing global concern about the impact of sugar on the widening obesity epidemic” [Ref: Guardian]. Similarly, columnist Janet Street-Porter argues that: “When it comes to taxing sugar, I wish politicians would stop worrying about the nanny state and – just for once – be bold and brave. A tax on drinks would be a start.” [Ref: Independent] Others though are wary of the UK government attempting to intervene in our choices, with writer Alex Deane bemoaning the “paternalism” of the proposal to tax sugary products, describing it as being “hugely patronising” [Ref: Telegraph]. But this discussion is about more than just sugar – critics and supporters are contesting the limits of government action on influencing behaviour, and are at odds about where responsibility for lifestyle choices should rest – does government have a responsibility to intervene to change behaviour, or should it be left to individuals to make their own decisions? Should the UK implement a levy to protect children and young people from too much sugar? Or is a sugar tax a blunt instrument, ill-equipped to deal with the complexity of the obesity crisis in the UK?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Why sugar, why now?
Public Health England released a controversial study in the autumn in which it outlined the dangers of consuming too much sugar and, among other measures, recommended the government introduce a tax or levy of 10-20% on sugary products to deal with obesity related illness [Ref: Guardian]. Sugar tax supporter Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, Chair of the Parliamentary Health Committee, underlines that “there is no time to lose”, and that the government has a responsibility to be “bold and brave” on childhood obesity, because a quarter of the most disadvantaged children in the country are obese by the time they leave primary school [Ref: Guardian]. Moreover, Jamie Oliver claims that introducing a levy of 20p per litre on soft drinks containing added sugar (equating to 7p on a 330ml can), “could have a significant impact on health in the UK, reducing sugary drink consumption by possibly 15%”, as well as raising up to £1bn per year in revenue [Ref: Daily Mail]. But the evidence itself is disputed, and statistics cited by critics argue that it is not a higher sugar intake that has caused the increase in obesity rates, because “per capita sugar consumption has fallen by 16% since 1992” [Ref: Institute of Economic Affairs].

What are the arguments for a sugar tax?
For scientist Robert Lustig, the case for a sugar tax is self-evident. He observes that: “Almost half of our daily consumption is in sugared beverages. The iron law of public health states that reducing the availability of a substance reduces its consumption, which reduces harms” [Ref: Guardian]. Jamie Oliver, along with many advocates of a sugar tax, stresses the effect that sugar has on the health of children - citing evidence that as many as 26,000 primary school children have to visit the hospital every year to have their rotten teeth taken out [Ref: Daily Mail]. And that’s in addition, supporters argue, to the 7000 amputations due to type 2 diabetes, and the £9 billion per year that the NHS spends treating these obesity related illnesses more generally [Ref: Daily Mail]. If the UK were to adopt a form of taxation on sugary drinks, proponents claim, it would not be the first country to do so. In January 2014, Mexico, which has one of the most overweight populations in the world, introduced a soda tax of 10% on all sugar sweetened drinks in a bid to reduce obesity related illness. Initial research suggests that the effect of the tax has been to decrease sugary drink consumption by an average of 6% by the end of 2014 [Ref: Time]. Furthermore, recent polling claims that 80% of Mexicans now link excessive amounts of fizzy drink with diabetes – prompting writer Alice Thompson to conclude that the Mexican sugar tax, “has sent out a vital message.” [Ref: The Times] Ultimately, supporters of a sugar tax in the UK argue that alongside improved labelling and industry regulation, it would be a crucial tool to help reconfigure consumer behaviour for the better, in the same way that: “Government intervention on smoking, done with incremental bans and restrictions, has transformed public health” [Ref: Guardian]. Professor Julian Hamilton-Shield agrees, declaring that: “No one can really doubt the harm sugar containing drinks do to children: they rot their teeth and likely make them obese and at risk of later type 2 diabetes. If a tax is needed to reduce sugar consumption, I am right behind it. No one complains about tobacco taxation: sugar should be treated in the same way.” [Ref: Daily Mail]

What are the arguments against a sugar tax?
Much of the criticism of a UK sugar tax centres on concerns about government intervention in the area of public health. For critics, personal choice is key, and as one Telegraph opinion piece argues: “The solution to the sugar crisis lies in personal responsibility. If someone is eating or drinking more sugar than they should, they ought to stop.” [Ref: Telegraph] Opponents of a sugar tax also suggest that singling out one food group, in this case sugar, fails to acknowledge the complexity of obesity, and as Fiona Hunter observes, “issues around nutrition are never black and white….there is no such thing as healthy and unhealthy foods, only healthy and unhealthy diets.” [Ref: Spectator] Other critics place an emphasis on alternatives to a tax, such as more exercise, with Professor Richard Tiffin suggesting that, “our expanding national waistline reflects rising levels of inactivity and sedentary occupations more than poor diet.” [Ref: Telegraph] More broadly critics focus on the ineffectiveness of so called ‘sin taxes’ on changing consumer behaviour. Campaigner Christopher Snowden uses the example of the failed Danish ‘Fax tax’ which was levied on all food products which contained more than 2.3% saturated fat, and was rescinded after little over a year [Ref: BBC News]. He observes that the policy failed because people found ways of obtaining fatty foods regardless of the tax, by purchasing them abroad for less money, shopping at cheaper food stores, or by simply paying more for the products – resulting in the tax having little or no observable effect on obesity rates, and ultimately becoming a symbol of “well-meaning government folly.” [Ref: Spectator] Another point of contention in the debate is the disproportionate effect sin taxes have on less well-off members of society, with critic Ruby Lott-Lavigna stating that “the sugar tax will just be a tax on the poor.” [Ref: New Statesman] Other products such as chocolates, sports drinks and soft drinks are already subject to a 20% VAT rate, unlike most other foodstuffs [Ref: Telegraph], and as such a levy on sugary drinks would be a double tax, again hurting the poor the hardest.


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


The science is in: the case for a sugar tax is overwhelming

Robert Lustig Guardian 27 October 2015

Medical professionals back a sugar tax, so what are you afraid of Mr Hunt?

Janet Street-Porter Independent 23 October 2015

Sugar tax would tackle the modern leprosy

Alice Thompson The Times 4 September 2015


The fat lie

Christopher Snowden Institute of Economic Affairs August 2014


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

A sugar tax is vital if we’re to keep the NHS alive

Sir Liam Donaldson The Times 5 January 2016

Sugar tax: is it enough to solve the obesity crisis?

Chris Askew Independent 30 November 2015

If we fail to tax sugary drinks, we fail our poorest children

Sarah Wollaston Guardian 30 November 2015

Sugar tax, bacon alerts…just more attacks on the poor

Rod Liddle The Sun 28 October 2015

More tax on sugar is not the answer

Telegraph 23 October 2015

Collaboration, not taxation, is needed to tackle obesity

Ian Wright Guardian 23 October 2015

I love you Jamie Oliver, but your sugar tax idea is classist

Ruby Lott-Lavigna New Statesman 23 October 2015

Don’t sugar the pill

The Times 22 October 2015

Sweet talk: in defence of sugar

Fiona Hunter Spectator 22 October 2015

Jamie Oliver is right: its madness not to clamp down on sugar

Gaby Hinsliff Guardian 3 September 2015

Can public policy stop obesity?

Christopher Snowden Cato Unbound 12 January 2015


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Unilever Boss warns against sugar tax

Guardian 25 January 2016

Tax on sugary drinks backed by MP’s

BBC News 30 November 2015

Britons back sugar tax to fight obesity

Daily Mail 30 October 2015

Be bold on sugar tax Jamie Oliver says

BBC News 19 October 2015

Denmark to abolish tax on high fat foods

BBC News 10 November 2012


Public health vs individual freedom

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 12 February 2014

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