Let’s stop talking about ‘sin taxes’ as if they are the saviour of mankind

By Nathan Gray contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition, Uk

While taxes on foods can lead to small drops in consumption, they are not the answer to our global obesity epidemic, argues Nathan Gray.
While taxes on foods can lead to small drops in consumption, they are not the answer to our global obesity epidemic, argues Nathan Gray.
Stop talking about food taxes like they are some sort of panacea that will alter consumer behaviours overnight, and magically eliminate obesity and diabetes. They won’t.

The Danish fat tax​ failed. So did efforts to introduce a ‘pasty tax’​ in the UK, along with various efforts to introduce soda taxes in the USA.

Yet not a month has gone by without a story on a fresh push for taxing unhealthy foods hitting my desk as potential news for FoodNavigator.

Sometimes we cover the story, sometimes we don’t. Often it depends on whether the new suggestions or research moves the debate forward in any way, shape or form.

One thing that has become increasingly clear to anyone who regularly engages in the issue is that the debate is far more complicated and nuanced than most people claim it is.

With this in mind, I ask one thing. Please, stop talking about taxes on ‘sin foods’ as if they are a magical cure-all that will reverse years of unhealthy eating practices and a growing epidemic of type 2 diabetes and obesity. Put simply, it won’t. It’s wishful thinking, or dare I say it, sinful thinking.

Whilst a tax on ‘unhealthy’ food and drink items - that really should be seen as a one off treats anyay - appears sound enough, the reality is that it is only one tool in a much wider (and barer) toolkit that public health campaigners, governments, consumers and the industry itself must work together to build.

A few extra pence, or cents, on a can of Coke alone certainly won’t be enough to force me to switch to mineral water.

I’m not saying that a tax could not form part of a solution. Just that it should not be pushed as the major part of any solution. Why? …

Because taxes do not alter consumption (much)

While parallels have been drawn between taxes on alcohol and tobacco, many forget that such taxes are colossal in comparison to any proposed food tax. And while they have worked, many have not worked as well as we once naively hoped they would.

I know lots of people that continue to smoke despite a levy rate reported to be 348%.​ Indeed, on a typical pack of 20 cigarettes the total tax burden in the UK accounts for around 77% of the recommended retail price. Does anybody realistically think a 20% tax on a can of soda will have any substantial effect? Being realistic, unfortunately, I don’t.

The fact is a 20% increase in retail price on the can of soda I bought with my lunch today (in the UK) would amount to 19 pence (€0.27). The same tax on a two litre bottle of Coca-Cola in a supermarket would amount to around 40 pence (€0.57) on average.

Indeed, previous research has suggested that a 20% tax on sugary drinks would reduce energy consumption by an average of 4 calories​ per person per day. While this figure is low I would argue that any reduction in caloric intake can, and should, form part of the toolkit to battle the bulge.

In the interests of balance I must mention that recent data from Mexico, which suggests that the 10% tax on sugary drinks brought in last year has reduced soda consumption by 6%, backs up the theory that soda taxes can and do work. The problem is that a 6% drop is not enough. As such, they surely cannot be the main solution.

I also worry about the fact that both the 4 calories per day and 6% drop are averages, and that for the vast majority of people who are most in need of help to battle obesity, there would be very little effect because:

  1. Brand Loyalty. People who really love their favourite drink will be willing to pay the little extra, leaving them out of pocket but still with an unhealthy diet
  2. Brand switching. Consumers who cannot afford or justify the price rise will simply switch to a cheaper brand or unbranded version; actually leaving them better off financially but still with an unhealthy diet
  3. Food swapping. Some will sacrifice other (perhaps healthier) foods to fund the price increases, leaving them no worse off but potentially with an even unhealthier diet.

These are just a few simple reasons why a major focus on taxation of ‘unhealthy foods’ would probably have very little effect, and could backfire.

Let’s move the debate on…

Rather than continuing to debate the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of a political hot potato, we need to consider the full palate of obesity and diabetes-tackling alternatives. Why don’t we agree to drop the idea of taxes, even just for a little while, and focus on building a bigger range of solutions?

How about more pressure on industry to further reformulate foods and drinks to meet World Health Organisation (WHO)​ and SACN guidelines​.

Industry – be it manufacturers or retailers are willing to act. Look at the recent move by UK retailer Tesco to remove added-sugar drinks aimed at children​ – in addition to previous commitments to ‘sweets free checkouts’​. Couple this with ongoing efforts to reduce salt, fat, and sugar through reformulation and better portion control in food packaging. 

More can be done by everybody involved in this area - but such solutions will do much more to reduce excess sugar and calorie intake than a tax would.

In addition, repeated suggestions that making healthier choices the cheaper choices​ (perhaps through subsidies or reducing the ‘healthy premiums’ charged for good-for-you products by some) are worthy of further exploration as a ‘price mechanism’ that has perhaps greater potential to do good.

Taxes can be part of the solution but they are no magic bullet, and it is time they stopped being billed as one.

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Nathan Gray is the science editor for FoodNavigator and NutraIngredients. He has written on key areas of food science and nutrition policy impacting the global food and nutritional supplements industry – including flavour formulation, sugar and salt reduction, gut health, and the links between nutrition and disease states. Nathan has a degree in Human Biosciences. You can tweet him @nathanrgray.

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6 comments

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Comment to Nancy

Posted by JCCarter,

How does an article from wired using old data show that sugar tax is working? Where is the indepenent data, not random claims made by certain folk in the public health industry? Or does it fit with your monologue, so you keep quoting it and hope nobody challanges it?

All of the items you are highlighting are interesting, but without data its just more experimentation on the public, but hey, its a good intention, so lets do it. If a food company wishes to make a claim on a product, regualtors make them jump through many hoops (only have to look at EU claims to see the extent), yet public health is empowered to make large claims created upon a lack of experimental data.


Why would you need to tax more if its worked so well with a low level...

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Who told you sugary drink taxes would cure obesity?

Posted by Nancy Huehnergarth,

I'm curious where you got the idea that "sin" taxes are "some sort of panacea that will alter consumer behaviours overnight, and magically eliminate obesity and diabetes." The public health experts I know in the U.S. who have proposed sugary drink taxes have NEVER made that claim. Rather, they have recommended employing a sugary drink tax as part of a multi-pronged effort to reduce rates of diabetes, obesity and other related chronic diseases.

What other efforts have been proposed, touted and/or implemented by public health advocates as part of this multi-pronged approach? You mentioned a few - junk food free checkout lines and ending the marketing of junk food/non-nutritious drinks to kids. I can't list them all but here are some more measures: menu labeling, healthier school food standards, healthier kid's menus, adding added sugars to nutrition labels and making them easier to read, making PE mandatory in all schools, warning labels on sugary drinks, advertising that educates consumers about healthy eating, removal of trans fat, healthy government procurement standards, improving our built environment to encourage movement, healthy food financing, improving WIC nutrition standards, encouraging purchase of fruits/veggies by SNAP participants via incentives, and many more.

To be perfectly frank, it's the food industry that created and perpetuates this outrageous myth. It's a clever strategy to manipulate legislators into believing that sugary drink taxes that have been implemented before have not "cured" obesity. So why support a new one? The truth is that 1) no single initiative will cure obesity and, 2) the beverage industry loves to point to beverage taxes in the U.S. (like the one in AK) that were designed to raise revenue, not lower consumption; they're nowhere near the evidence-based level that decreases consumption (a penny per ounce).

To my knowledge, only Mexico and Berkeley, CA have levied taxes high enough on sugary drinks to impact consumption. And that was their stated goal. As you reported, Mexico has seen a statistically significant drop in consumption, 6% on average, that will make a difference. Will it end obesity? No. But it's helping and other important initiatives are being pursued. We should have data from Berkeley very soon.

Mexico's Soda Tax is Working. The U.S. Should Learn from it: http://www.wired.com/2015/07/mexicos-soda-tax-working-us-learn/?utm_content=bufferc85bf&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Please stop perpetuating the food industry created myth that a sugary drink tax or other food tax is the savior of mankind. Again, not one of the many public health experts I've worked with on sugary drink tax proposals have EVER made any such claim. And they never will.

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Mexicos soda tax

Posted by JC Carter,

New Zealand has also had commentary around a variety of sin taxes to save us from ourselves, especially from a certain group of academics out of University of Auckland. Them, and other academics have lots of comments aroiund Mexicos soda tax being a success. Claiming 6% that you mention, acellerating to a greater loss by the end of the year 2014 (~12% reduction). Then the data goes quiet.

The New Zealand Tax Payers Union produced a report recently "Fizzed out: Why sugar taxes won't curb obestiy" (with a forward from Christopher Snowden - UK).

Inside of this report, they provide some Neilson sales data showing Peso spent on soda, litres purchased and unit sales. Peso spent on soda went up over 2014 and into 2015. Unit volume did not change (~0.2% up and down), and as such neither did volume of soda.

Where is the real data?

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