The sugar tax: would it even work?

After two years of sugar tax, the Mexican government canned it. But the UK is considering it... How effective would it be?
20 November 2015

Interview with 

Dr Anthony Laverty, Imperial College London


It's clear we need to cut down how much sugar we eat but how do we do it? CakePublic Health England say we should tax sugary foodstuffs; David Cameron says we shouldn't... What actual evidence, if any, is there to suggest that this would work? Anthony Laverty is a Research Fellow at Imperial College London and specialises in Public Health. He gave Kat Arney the lowdown on sugar taxation...

Anthony - Public Health England (PHE) they haven't sort of specifically gone through the policy details of this is what our tax would look like, this is what we need specifically  they've said we could have a 10-20% tax on sugary food.  And they say in bold this could include sugary drinks. But they haven't sort of said this is what you need specifically. So we don't really have the detail of the policy on the table as such.

Kat - So it's sort of, have we thought about this sort of thing?

Anthony - Yes, so they sort of say the available evidence says this would work but they haven't said specifically this is kind of how you should design it and this is what we expect to see.

Kat - And this is, obviously, really controversial because the idea of taxing something like sugary drinks and foods has seemed to have got peoples' backs up.  What are the key arguments on both sides?

Anthony - The key arguments really about why it would work, it just says you kind of make this simple causal chain that says; things will be more expensive; prices will be passed on to the consumer; people will buy fewer of them; there'll be fewer calories, less sugar and this knock-on, nice impact on their health.

Kat - Everyone's a winner...

Anthony - Everyone's a winner. And so the argument against it are; well we don't really know that the prices will be passed on to consumers; maybe the supermarket will just absorb that.  Although the evidence says that that seems unlikely to happen.  A lot of it kind of revolves around sort of free market, free choice idea...

Kat - It's an ideological thing isn't it.  This shouldn't ...

Anthony - Yes.  So people should be able to go out there and buy as much as whatever they like.

Kat - So has this actually been trialed in any countries?

Anthony - So a few places have tried different things.  So Mexico, most famously, have this tax on sugary drinks. So Mexico is 1 peso per litre.  So you're talking about small amounts.  Which is kind of where, again there's some uncertainty.  So some people say  unless you are going to tax around a 20% level on the sugar in drinks, you're not really going to see a big impact. So Berkeley in California, they have this one cent per ounce of sugar, so they have this kind of tax going on there.  So again it's early stages for the implementation of the policy so the evidence there says prices are passed on to consumers  but we don't really know very specifically are people buying fewer of them and consuming less calories.

Kat - An there are things that we heavily tax in the UK that could be considered to be unhealthy vices.  I'm thing obviously of booze and cigarettes.  Does that seem to work?  A huge proportion of the price of a packet of cigarettes is now tax.

Anthony - So taxing cigarettes definitely works.  I think you'd be hard pressed to find people that disagree with that but the other thing is

certainly on tobacco, taxes are the big one that are effective.  Over about 20 years we worked on the affordability of tobacco, we worked on the accessibilities - you can buy it in fewer places, and we worked on the kind of acceptability.  There's these public campaigns about how it's particularly bad for you and so similarly with sugar, I would say you would see impacts from the tax.  If you want to see some large impacts you're going to have to consider intervening at other places.

Kat - Maybe trying to get rid of that wall of chocolate in service stations? I find that so tempting...

Anthony - Yes.  Certain places have said we are going to get rid of that but I would say limited action on that so far.

Kat -   Thank you very much.  That's Anthony Laverty from Imperial College London. So Chris,  how are you getting on with your sugar test? How are you doing with those apples?

Chris - I've managed to complete one apple so far.  Giles, how are you getting on with your glass of juice?

Giles - It is finished.  It's gone.

Chris - Wow!  So Giles has done a whole half pint of apple juice.  That's just because it's nice right?  Not because you were forcing it down.

Giles -   That's right.

Chris - And so I've managed one apple which is precisely one seventh of the calories that Giles has consumed.  That's the important point here isn't it Giles, that we've basically taking in a lot fewer calories if I eat the apple than if you neck down a half pint of juice?

Giles - Correct. So sugar in itself is not bad, but how much of it you have - that's the problem.


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