Sugar is a killer. Despite recent increases in the world price of this commodity, it remains an easy way for the food industry to generate profits. The sugar content of much fast food and takeaways, in particular, is too high, and we are taking the sweet road to mass obesity.
It costs the NHS dear, it shortens lifespans and destroys the quality of life of individuals and families after strokes, heart attacks and the onset of diabetes. In many ways, it is the “new tobacco”.
And yet taxing it in the same way we tax tobacco and alcohol may not be the best answer. Much could be achieved through voluntary action by the supermarkets, the fast-food chains and other interested parties.
So-called “meal deals” and other clever marketing encourage us to pile on the calories. The supermarkets could take more care about promoting chocolate, biscuits and fizzy drinks.
The manufacturers should reduce the size of chocolate bars and bags of sweets. (The same goes for the modern, inflated “grab bag” of crisps, about twice the size of the conventional pack of say 20 years ago).
Such voluntary action, and improved labelling, would be more effective than tax, because it removes temptation in the first place. What’s more, a sugar tax will only work if it is set at a deterrent level, as with cigarettes. Unless that is done, the main impact will be to drive up the cost of the weekly shop, hitting poorer families hardest – but without reducing consumption.
Indeed, having to make extra room in the budget for sweet drinks and cookies would mean less cash for fresh fruit. A truly deterrent level of taxation – pricing cola as if it were whisky – would be politically unacceptable.
Besides, with special taxes on carrier bags, the possibility of minimum pricing for alcohol, varying duties on different types of booze and tobacco and different VAT rates on warm/hot snacks from the restaurant, our supermarkets will soon come to resemble fiscal adventure playgrounds, and to no great purpose.
Tax is not the answer to every social ill.