Sugar, The State and Supercilious Sin Taxation

Updated: Jun 15, 2020

By Adam Taylor

German essayist Alfred Döblin stated that, “the world is made of sugar and dirt.” Indeed, it would seem that white grain of ambrosial sweetness is as much of a key constituent in our favourite foods as earth is strewn across our landscape. Whether it be explicitly labelled in a bright red can of Coca-Cola or mixed duplicitously into a fruitful yoghurt, sugar in today’s market can be difficult to avoid.

Recently there have been calls for government to act in order to have companies cut the amount of sugar in their products and ultimately improve the health of UK citizens – children in particular. In 2015, a petition was launched calling on a tax to be introduced on sugary drinks to help combat childhood obesity. Despite a spirited debate in a House of Commons committee in November of the same year, the government of the time announced no plans to introduce such a tax. One year later, in his 2016 Spring Budget, then Chancellor George Osborne announced that soft drinks manufacturers were to be taxed, from 2018, on the volume of sugar in their products. Despite a less than subdued 24 months of British politics that followed, HM Government introduced a levy on the added sugar in fizzy drinks on the 6th of April 2018 as previously promised.

The Soft Drinks Industry Levy sees companies whom manufacture fizzy drinks with added sugar pay 24p per litre of fizzy drinks which contain 8g of sugar per 100ml and a slightly less 18p for drinks containing between 5 and 8 grams per 100ml. Other drinks such as pure fruit juices are exempt, given that they do not contain any added sugar, as well as drinks with a high milk content because of the calcium they contain. The plan is not unique to the United Kingdom as similar policies have been in place in France and Mexico since 2013, Hungary since 2011 and as far back as the 1920’s in Norway.

Many see such measures as an unnecessary intrusion into the lives of individuals and as a further example of national government impeding on the free market to battle against companies that the public may see as promoting a somehow immoral lifestyle. If it’s not whiskey manufacturers then its cigarette companies, if not the gambling industry then high-street lenders. Instead of allowing businesses to respond to the needs and wants of society, the government (or rather politicians) respond to the latest do good campaign against the evil corporations only interested in ruining people’s lives to make money. Then again, it’s not business owners whom have to be reappointed to their job every few years by popular vote.

Original estimates had postulated that the revenue from such a policy would generate around £500million that was to be invested into programmes to encourage children to lead a healthy lifestyle. However, the Government lowered this figure to £240 million upon the introduction of the tax. Government figures from November 2018 suggest that this target is on course to be met after one full year. One has to question why the original £500million figure was drastically reduced, given that it was itself a reduction from the £1billion figure promised by campaigners in the original 2015 survey. The answer lies with business.

In the months leading up to the introduction of the tax, businesses began revising recipes, altering ingredients and fiddling with formulas. It was estimated that 50% of drinks saw a reduction in sugar content before the new levy began. So, it would seem that business had managed to side-step too big a hit to profits from the levy by embracing the purpose of the new measures. Others however burdened the consumer with the cost of the tax. Manufacturers such as Coca-Cola simply reduced the size of a 330ml can of full sugar variety to 250ml. Thereby leaving it up to customers to fork out for that extra hit of sweetness.

HM Treasury may not have therefore received quite the lump sum it was expecting upon announcing the policy in 2016 but is at least confident of obtaining the £240million figure to invest in health programmes for children. It has further been announced that levels of funding for such programmes would remain even if a reduction in revenue from the levy ensued.

It is, as of yet, too early to say whether or not we are eating less sugar as a result of the so called ‘sugar tax.’ Results from countries that have implemented the policy for longer, such as Mexico, suggest it could have a positive impact with the sale of sugary soft drinks there down 6% in 2014. It is not clear that this has reduced obesity however as 2018 OECD health statistics show that a third of Mexican adults are still categorised as obese.

The success of this policy will ultimately be determined by rates of childhood obesity in the years that follow its introduction. It is clear that it has already been successful in reducing the quantity of sugar in fizzy drinks products, but the question is whether or not this will be enough? Sugar remains abundant in many products outside of fizzy drinks, and of course there are takeaways serving convenient alternatives to home cooked meals which is also contributing to high obesity rates.

It would seem that no matter the level of government intervention, the responsibility for leading a healthy lifestyle will ultimately rest with the individual whilst the consequences of an obese nation may affect society as a whole.