Calls grow for ‘sin tax’ on addictive sugar

Burst bubbles: Sugary drinks are not as innocent as people like to think.

Limiting the amount of sugar we consume is crucial to reducing our unhealthy levels of obesity. Should the government start taxing sugary drinks and snacks in the same way as cigarettes?

Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, once wrote in a letter: ‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’

This week it appears that the chief medical officer for England is hoping to lower rates of the former by increasing the latter, warning the government that a tax on sugar may be necessary to stop the rising numbers of obese children and adults.

Dame Sally Davies told MPs that the government should force food and drink manufacturers to make their products healthier. Many other concerned groups are also calling for taxation and statutory regulation on sugary snacks.

While it is well known that obesity can cause cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes, it is only in recent years that experts have begun to consider sugar as a key culprit. Surprisingly, it can be found in many products that ostensibly do not seem all that sweet, such as baked beans, chicken nuggets and white bread, as well as in soft drinks often targeted at the young.

Several countries already tax soft drinks, including Denmark, France and many US states, but not at the level which expert studies show necessary to seriously curb their consumption.

Last year nutrition campaigners Sustain and 61 other charities and health organisations, including the Royal Society for Public Health, called on George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to levy 20p on every litre of cola. As the UK consumes more than five billion litres of it every year this would raise more than £1bn. Some of that, they suggest, could usefully be spent on children’s health and free school meals.

The soft drinks industry is eager to avoid the imposition of a ‘sin tax’ like those currently levied on cigarettes and alcohol, which would reduce their sales and profits. They spend large sums of money lobbying the government in order to retain the current voluntary code and avoid statutory regulation and taxation.

The sweet smell of excess

Some of those who oppose the sugar tax, including the company Associated British Foods which supplies half of the UK’s sugar, insist there is no proven link between sugar, soft drinks and obesity. Others like Terry Jones, of the Food and Drink Federation, say that any extra tax on sugar would ‘hit the poorest families hardest at a time when they can least afford it.’

Its supporters say that a tax, at a suitable level, would drive down consumption, which in turn would reduce obesity and eventually save lives. The battle to get the tobacco industry to admit cigarettes were addictive and harmful to smokers’ health took several decades. How much longer might it be before food and drinks manufacturers admit something similar about their own products?

You Decide

  1. If cola was more expensive, would you drink less of it?
  2. Is freedom of choice more important than health when it comes to what we eat? Is it right for the government to interfere?


  1. Form into groups and look at the labels of snacks, sweets and cans of drink. Work out how much sugar each one contains — four grams equals a level teaspoon of sugar.
  2. Class debate: This House would implement a sugar tax.

Some People Say...

“The only sound advice about healthy eating is don’t eat too much and don’t eat all the same thing.’Professor David Colquhoun”

What do you think?

Q & A

Fat makes you fat too. Why not tax that?
Many things contribute to obesity and the overeating of all sorts of food is one of them. However our consumption of sugar, and especially sugar in sugary, fizzy drinks, is especially hazardous as it is addictive and interferes with the hormone leptin which tells the brain when we’ve eaten enough.
Isn’t it up to me to decide what I want to eat?
Up to a point, but there is an increasing concern over the amount of sugar young people are consuming. Today’s generation may not live as long as the previous generation due to their poor diet. There is also a lack of knowledge surrounding sugary products — many people do not realise that fruit juice, generally considered a healthy product, is full of sugar.

Word Watch

Up to now the government has allowed manufacturers to operate under a voluntary code.
Evidence shows that most adults and children in the UK eat more sugar than is recommended as part of a healthy balanced diet. Food and drinks that have a lot of added sugar contain calories, but often have few other nutrients.
‘Sin tax’
A term used to describe taxes placed on products that society considers undesirable, such as cigarettes and alcohol. Governments hope that by raising the cost of a product, they will reduce socially unacceptable behaviour and behaviour that puts pressure on health services.
Lobbying is the practice of individuals and organisations trying to influence the opinions of MPs and the Lords. Methods of lobbying vary — sending letters, making presentations, providing briefing material to MPs, and organised rallies are all forms of lobbying.


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