Taxes on food and drink containing high levels of saturated fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) would need to be so high to have any significant effect on reducing obesity levels in the UK population that they would not be acceptable to consumers, leading academics have revealed.
Modelling studies conducted by researchers have shown that a tax on the saturated fat content of foods would reduce the risk of obesity by only a small amount and that a 20% tax on soft drinks would reduce adult obesity by 1.3% and overweight by 1.9%, according to Professor Richard Tiffin, director of the Centre for Food Security at University of Reading, who was involved with the work.
Tiffin was speaking at a symposium held at St Thomas’ Hospital in London last month, organised by the British Nutrition Foundation titled: ‘Food taxes what role might they have in the battle against obesity?’
Health campaign groups have argued for more regulation of the food and drink industry to control the sale and marketing of HFSS foods. They argue that voluntary measures with manufacturers, such as the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal, have not worked.
Ineffective and disproportionate
While some have supported the introduction of taxation on HFSS foodstuffs to curb their consumption, others have argued this would be ineffective while disproportionately hitting poorer consumers. Tiffin’s modelling studies also predicted that food taxes would impact most heavily on those least able to pay.
“A piecemeal approach to ‘bad’ nutrients applied at a population level fails to acknowledge the complexity of individual and social behaviour, which leads to growing inequalities in health," said Tiffin. “The changes [from introducing taxation] are relatively small and in most cases we do not move into the recommended levels [of HFSS consumption].”
"Any tax of this kind needs to be beyond the point at which it is acceptable to the public before it can have any real effect,” said Christopher Snowdon, director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Snowdon reported on the failed attempts in Denmark to use taxation to reduce saturated fat intake in order to decrease diet-related illness.
Dr Laura Cornelsen, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, raised concerns about the food substitutions people might make if taxation were to be introduced.
There was also uncertainty about how taxes would impact on the food industry’s reformulation activity to make foods healthier, said Cornelsen. She questioned whether taxes would be passed on to consumers.
From research carried out among children and families in the north west – a region with the second highest rate of obesity in the UK – Dr Hannah Timpson, health and wellbeing research manager at the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, said while taxation might change the consumption behaviour of people with lower incomes, the 20% increase in price proposed by some, would not generally be enough.
Meanwhile, the Food Manufacture Group, in association with the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST), is staging a free, one-hour webinar at 11am on Thursday July 3, dedicated to separating the myths from the realities about sugar and Britain’s national obesity crisis.
To reserve your free place at the online seminar, which will feature contributions from prominent industry experts, email Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org . More details of this event will follow later this month.