Fat taxes don’t work

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


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

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page


Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments