Fat taxes don’t work

Obesity is a growing problem, but punitive taxation would be ineffective and illiberal

Share

Is a tax on soft drinks the best way to reduce their consumption? Research published in the British Medical Journal suggests it is, and that it would raise a handy £276m for the exchequer as well, enough to support many a local authority health club. The suggestion is for a 20 per cent levy, which would reduce the number of obese adults by 180,000. As Homer Simpson might ask of his favourite doughnuts: “What’s not to like?”

Nothing, except that it is fraught with practical difficulty, and would probably collapse under the obese bulk of its own contradictions. Away from the laboratory of social science, it is easy to see how consumer demand and a willing and inventive band of big soft-drink makers could conspire to frustrate such a tax. What, for example, is a “drink with added sugar”? Is that any addition of sugar, no matter how small? If so, it would treat lower sugar “diet” alternatives the same as their  full-on alternatives, which seems perverse. Does it include drinks with other added sweeteners? And what about unadulterated smoothies and juices that, for all their purity, contain plenty of natural, non-added sugars in any case?  If a certain threshold of added sugar were stipulated, then one can envisage a new range of drinks pitched at just below that level – not quite the revolution envisaged.

Even for the poorest households, would another 10p on the price of a bottle of Irn-Bru or Coke really make much difference? In which case maybe the sugar tax should be set higher. Punitive taxation certainly helped reduce tobacco consumption, but do we really want to see the £3 can of cola? Set the tax too high and we could see the sort of smuggling and black market activity that undermines the taxation of cigarettes and cheap spirits. And if we’re taxing sweet things, how about biscuits, cakes, chocolate, jam, tinned fruit in syrup, even tomato ketchup? What if the water and sugary flavourings were sold in separate bottles, ready to be mixed by excited children willing to experiment with tasty combinations? One can also foresee some lively legal battles over the status of honey.

Just as it took the courts decades to decide if a Jaffa Cake qualified as a cake (zero rated for VAT) or a biscuit (liable to VAT), with highly paid barristers and tax experts arguing the toss about the extent to which said Jaffa Cake could be defined as “chocolate covered”, similar levels of absurdity could easily overtake a sugar tax.

A better approach might be to make gluttony as socially unacceptable as cigarette smoking became, through intensive programmes of health education, and to take smaller, more realistic steps, to curb consumption, such as stopping schools stocking fizzy drinks in their vending machines. Health warnings on fast food and other “bad” foods could be introduced, and the food and drink makers encouraged to do still more to highlight fat and sugar content in labelling. The supermarkets should be shamed into moving the “impulse buy” bars of chocolate away from check-outs. The state can and should act to prevent obesity, diabetes and various cancers fostered by excessive sugar consumption. But the tax system, already complex and exasperating, is not the ideal weapon.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The power of anonymity lies in the freedom it grants

Boyd Tonkin
Tory whips were anxiously ringing round the “usual suspects” following Douglas Carswell's defection to Ukip  

Douglas Carswell’s defection reminds us that it's the Tories who have the most to fear from Ukip

Andrew Grice
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone