Leading doctors have urged the government to introduce a 20 per cent tax on sugar, in a report by the British Medical Association (BMA).
The report, titled “Food for Thought,” argues that more measures are needed to discourage people from maintaining unhealthy diets. In addition to the sugar tax, the report argues for stricter limits on the marketing of unhealthy food and drinks.
“The use of taxation measures on unhealthy food and drink products has consistently been found to have the potential to improve health, with relatively high taxation levels (in the region of 20 per cent) needed to achieve positive health outcomes,” the report argues.
“While taxing a wide range of products is an important long-term goal, a useful first step would be to implement a duty on sugar-sweetened beverages […] by increasing the price by at least 20 per cent.”
The report is a response to a number of worrying findings in recent months: in May, a study by the Overseas Development Institute found that processed food has become significantly cheaper over the last 30 years, while the price of fruit and vegetables has gone up.
“This is an important way to help redress the imbalance highlighted previously between the cost of healthy and unhealthy products, which particularly impacts on individuals and families affected by food poverty.”
Sugar is one of the most commonly blamed elements of unhealthy “Western” diets, and a number of studies have linked excessive sugar consumption to obesity, which in turn has been linked with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. That said, obesity is by no means the only cause of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes; as many as 20 per cent of people with type 2 are of a healthy weight at the point of diagnosis.
Too often, escalating rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes are blamed on the individual, with a number of public figures emphasising the need for “personal responsibility.” This report does away with such thinking, instead suggesting that the largely unregulated marketing of junk food is at least partly responsible.
Moreover, at least some of the blame should lie with a lack of regulation in the food industry itself: a report published in March found that some breakfast cereals contain as much as 33g of sugar per 100g. So far, unhealthy food companies have not been sanctioned. Instead, they have merely been asked to reduce the amount of sugar in their food, with no repercussions should they choose not to do so, as part of a “responsibility deal.”
The sugar tax is a short-term measure designed to dissuade people from drinking sugary drinks by making them more expensive, but some critics have described such measures as “illiberal.” Writing in The Spectator, Eleni Courea argues that such a tax would only attack the poor, and describes sugar taxation as a “pious, regressive absurdity”: “Indirect taxes – including vehicle excise duty, air passenger duty, ‘green taxes’ and duty on tobacco, alcohol and petrol – make the poor poorer. A sugar tax will only add to this problem; yet another callous levy on the lifestyle of the poor.
“If the lifestyle of the poor is unhealthy, that is because long hours and low pay offer little choice. Kept afloat by tax credits – which may be about to undergo savage cuts – low-income parents do not have the time or money to invest in fresh ingredients and cook healthy meals. They could not be punished for this – what they need is packages of support to overcome the barriers to a healthy lifestyle.”

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