In the light of Boris Johnson’s recent criticism of sugar tax (or the ‘soft drinks industry levy’ as it’s officially called) and his promise to review its effectiveness, I have decided to weigh up the pros and cons and explain why I think it’s a good and necessary idea.
What is the sugar tax?
At the moment, the only thing the sugar tax actually affects is soft drinks. Drinks with more than 8g of sugar per 100ml have an added tax of £0.24 per litre. Hence, a 500ml regular Coca Cola will include a £0.12 tax on top of its original price. Not a particularly huge additional cost, but in its first 6 months, the sugar tax raised £154,000,000 nationwide. Its intention is to help curb the rising obesity crisis we face in the UK – with more than 65% of adults classified as overweight and 28% clinically obese. However, it has faced some criticism. Many critics say that people should be able to make their own decisions without government direction, and some, including Johnson, claim that there is no evidence that the tax actually reduces obesity.
Pro: It raises money for the government
The most obvious point in favour of any tax, it gives money to the Treasury which can be used for the good of the country. £154m in 6 months is a significant sum of money, and currently it is supposed to go toward sport in primary schools. The basic idea of this is that when parents buy their children soft drinks and make them overweight, they’re also helping their school to exercise the weight off of them again. This makes sense, although admittedly it has some problems in practice. At least from my point of view, primary school sport funds don’t benefit overweight children anywhere near as much as they’d like to – the money always seems to skew toward making already sporty children even better, because you know, school sports departments want their school to win and teaching PE to unenthusiastic children can be very frustrating.
So, as the tax raises more money, it would make more sense to me for most of the money to go to the NHS because they’re the ones who really have to bear the brunt of us all living on a diet of fizzy drinks. This way, when you buy your fizzy drink, you’re also giving £0.12 each time to the care you’ll get for the health problems it’s going to contribute to.
Con: it unfairly affects those on a low income
Critics of the sugar tax, including Johnson, claim that it unfairly affects those on a lower income. A £0.12 increase in price won’t make any difference to someone with a large savings, but to someone living payday to payday it would, especially if it’s stacked up. So it’s another thing where the rich can do what they like while the poor can’t.
This makes sense in theory, but the whole point of the sugar tax is that it doesn’t stack up. If people can’t afford to buy so much Coke, they won’t buy so much Coke, and therefore they’ll be healthier.
But you know what else unfairly affects those on a low income? Cheap unhealthy food and drink. Unhealthy food is often much cheaper than the healthier options and this is one of the things people conveniently forget about when they’re criticising people on low incomes for being overweight. Imagine you’re going into a supermarket for lunch, and you only have £2 in your pocket. Do you buy the £1.50 salad and £1 bottle of water? No, obviously you can’t. And that’s quite cheap compared to most supermarket lunch salads. You can’t afford the salad and water, but you can afford two 80p bags of 5 custard doughnuts each and a 35p Boost energy drink. HOW does that make sense?!
Making the sugar more expensive doesn’t really solve that problem, admittedly, but if sugar prices increase along with salad price decreases, then you’d surely see a sudden shift in the kind of food many with no money are eating.
Pro: it changes the actual drinks
In response to the sugar tax being introduced, many soft drinks companies altered their recipes so that they’d have less sugar than the threshold. Then they wouldn’t have to put the tax on it, and then they would get more sales than rivals whose prices were being increased. This is great, because it means the drinks aren’t quite as unhealthy as they were before.
A great example of this still lies with Coca Cola. Have you noticed the huge increase in the popularity and availability of Coke Zero in the last couple of years? It ain’t a coincidence. You don’t pay sugar tax on Coke Zero, so Coca Cola have made it more widely available to grab back the customers who may have turned away at the price increase on normal Coke. Zero isn’t actually much less unhealthy than regular Coke but you know, one step at a time.
Con: the Nanny State con…
Boris Johnson’s biggest argument against the sugar tax is that it is “the continuing creep of the nanny state”. To find out what he means by this, let’s hear from our Unjustified Public Outrage correspondent Bruce Lockhead…
Thanks, Bruce. First off, you can choose what you drink, because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to buy sugary drinks at all. The only difference is, you have to pay for the damage it causes.
The nanny state is what opponents call government interventions in people’s daily lives aimed at making them healthier and happier. This offends people who feel patronised by being helped by the state and would like to feel more independent. Often, you also find the roots of why people support this argument to be ‘I don’t want to think about the fact that what I’m doing isn’t good for me’.
Thirdly…can you make your own decisions? It’s been improving in recent years (thanks to the ‘nanny state’) but look at the adverts around you. There are far more for fast food, sweets, and soft drinks than there are for anything that’s considered healthy, and the ones that are healthy are aimed at people who would ordinarily avoid fast food anyway. Happy families at McDonald’s, eating their burgers and drinking their huge Cokes and smiling and laughing and lovin’ it. Millions of pounds put behind these campaigns to persuade you to buy their junk. Is there anywhere near as much spent on adverts to persuade you to buy healthy food? These adverts will influence your decisions. They wouldn’t spend so much on these campaigns if they didn’t work. The playing field could definitely be levelled out though, if some of the money raised with the sugar tax went toward skilled marketing for healthy food.
So, as I’m sure you’ve worked out, I don’t agree with Boris Johnson. Funnily enough, neither does he. It turns out that in 2016 as Mayor of London, before the sugar tax was introduced, he added a 10p charge on sugary drinks sold at City Hall. But Boris Johnson’s opinions doing a complete u-turn, I’ve never heard of such a thing! Except for, well, pretty much everything he says. I wholly support the sugar tax and I hope it can be extended to more types of unhealthy food and drink in future.