Sugar drinks levy: More interference won’t end obesity

Rob Lyons
AMONG the ten point plan published yesterday by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges in its “prescription for the nation’s medical crisis”, the headline-grabber was a tax on sugary drinks. An additional 20 per cent charge “would be an experimental measure, looking at price elasticity, substitution effects, and to what extent it impacts upon consumption patterns”. The mealy-mouthed terms in which the proposal was couched ref lects the fact that those who have seriously looked at the idea realise it would have little or no beneficial effect.

Even the report itself notes that evi- dence from France, which has a tax of five cents per litre, and Hungary, which has a “junk food” tax, is hardly overwhelming. It could also have mentioned the failure of Denmark’s tax on food containing more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat. This didn’t change diets. It encouraged Danes to hop across to Germany to buy their butter. And whatever the authors claim now, if previous attempts to regulate behaviour are indicative, a 20 per cent levy would just be for starters.

There are also good reasons to believe the health effects would be minimal. If a sugary-drink tax were introduced, some would react as intended: they would consume less or move to a sugar-free alternative. But others would spend less on other products – possibly the foods that doctors regard as desirable – to carry on consuming their favourite drinks.

Many more will switch brands. At Tesco, a two-litre bottle of Coca Cola costs £1.98. A two-litre bottle of Tesco’s own-brand cola costs 57p. That differential is far bigger than any soda tax is likely to be. In 2011, professor Jack Winkler noted in the British Journal of Nutrition that consumers regularly pay 950 per cent extra for a well-known brand. A 20 per cent levy is tiny by comparison.

The effect on health is likely to be even smaller. First, according to a 2011 study by Zenith International, 61 per cent of UK soft drinks consumption is products that contain no added sugar. Secondly, sugary drinks are just one among a myriad of factors that affect the size of a waistline. While the consumption of soft drinks containing added sugar fell by 9 per cent over the last ten years, incidence of obesity has increased by 15 per cent. Campaigners’ obsession with fizzy pop reflects the fact that this is a policy that just might get taken up – particularly by a government desperate to grab more tax.

There is also a more fundamental issue: is it the place of the state to influence such basic choices as what we drink? The freedom to make our own choices – even wrong ones – is at the core of being a free citizen. Underpinning the idea of lifestyle taxes is the view that an enlightened caste in society must make decisions on our behalf because we are too ignorant to decide for ourselves.

The medical profession would be better served by figuring out effective ways of treating the relatively small minority who are really seriously overweight. Leave the rest of us to enjoy our little indulgences in peace.

Rob Lyons is author of Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder