Following the introduction by the British government of a tax on sugary carbonated drinks in April 2018, intended to improve public health and combat obesity in children, some campaigners have started calling for similar taxes on a wider range of products.
NHS Chief Medical Officer Prof. Dame Sally Davies, described by the BBC as ‘Britain’s top doctor’, has called for a tax on foods high in salt and sugar, as well as widening the current sugar tax to other types of drinks. The revenue from these taxes, she proposes, would go towards making fruit and vegetables cheaper for the consumer.
Dame Sally makes reference to children and low-income communities as the main beneficiaries of these taxes. Obesity, she says, is a “matter of inequality” that disproportionately affects poorer children and adults. She and others like her hope to make people healthier by discouraging the sale and consumption of unhealthy foods whilst encouraging healthier alternatives.
The most obvious problem with this reasoning is that low-income consumers are the ones who will be hit hardest by the tax. Personal habits, as Bake-off winner Nadiya Hussain points out in her amusing take on the sugar tax, are hard to break. Many, if not most, consumers will continue buying the same products as before at the new higher prices, leaving them with even less disposable income to spend on other things.
The fact that the current sugar tax managed to raise £154 million in extra revenue for the government in just six months is suggestive of the reality that consumer habits aren’t changing. In seeking to improve the lives of poorer children and adults the tax has instead simply left them with less money. Expanding the tax to other food and drink products is going to have a proportionately higher financial impact on the poorest people in the country.
Many soft drinks providers have tried to get around the tax by using alternative sweeteners in their products. This may seem like a good solution on the surface, but in reality it can end up being even more harmful.
The popular sugar substitute aspartame, used in many of these products, has been accused of causing weight gain in consumers by increasing the body’s appetite for it and other sweet foods. It’s possible that artificial sweeteners could ultimately be worse for consumers’ health than the natural sugar they replace.
Expanding the use of alternative sweeteners to other foods and drinks would lead to a huge increase in their consumption at a time when their effects and benefits are still the subject of considerable debate.
Another issue with artificial sweeteners is the difference in taste that can result. Some providers, notably Lukozade, have seen a backlash from consumers over the change in the taste of their products following the introduction of the tax. This can also hurt sales and potentially put companies and jobs at risk.
The issue of taste leads into another significant, but often understated, problem with discouraging sugary food: the effect on people’s happiness. People consume these products because they enjoy them, and for many people that’s done in moderation as part of a balanced overall diet. It’s unreasonable to tell the sensible majority that they have to pay more for their favourite products, or have them fundamentally altered, because of a minority who consume them in excess.
For children this is particularly pertinent. Sweet drinks and food are an important part of childhood; they create a lot of excitement and make effective rewards for good behaviour. But even for adults, energy drinks, sweet snacks and salty foods play an important role in providing moments of relief and pleasure.
Proponents of these taxes argue that their purpose is to improve the health and wellbeing of people, particularly poor people and children. The reality, however, is that they can end up causing more harm than they prevent in other ways. Wellbeing is not simply a question of diet, but also one of happiness, financial wellbeing and overall quality of life. The people best placed to make balanced decisions about improving their overall wellbeing are the people in question themselves, not the government.
If individual wellbeing is really what the government is interested in promoting, then taxes are not the tool through which to achieve it. Education and information are likely to be far more effective in changing consumer behavior without harming people in other ways. If the government really wants to help people, and isn’t just looking for an easy source of revenue, then they should trust consumers to make their own choices in their own interests, while campaigners should focus their efforts on informing and educating the public to help them make those choices.