Sugar, salt and fat taxes are 'very positive', says Health Commissioner

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock/elenachaykina
©iStock/elenachaykina
The EU Health Commissioner has said that taxation on certain ingredients and products can be a “very powerful” tool for tackling health issues, including obesity. Campaigners have welcomed his comments but food industry representatives said small businesses would be hit hardest.

Speaking before a meeting of Europe’s health ministers in Malta, Vytenis Andriukaitis noted that, whilst the introduction of Pigouvian taxes are a matter for member states, the European Commission is “very positive on these instruments”.

“ …it is a very important message that taxation instruments are very powerful instruments addressing key issues related to all risk factors – sugar, salt, trans-fats, alcohol and tobacco​,” he explained.“I am very proud that some countries [have] started to do it.”

Spain and Estonia are the latest EU countries to announce plans for taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks, but there are also proposals on the table in Portugal, Ireland and the UK. Most of the focus has been on drinks; Estonia’s government, for instance, said the link between sugary drinks and weight gain is stronger than for any other food or beverage.

FoodDrinkEurope said taxing specific food or drink products or ingredients is “not the solution”​ to fight obesity or non-communicable diseases. The group pointed to research by the European Commission in 2014​ that suggested more work needs to be done on this “highly complex”​ topic. Food taxes can achieve reductions in consumption, the authors noted, but equally consumers may just buy cheaper brands of the taxed products – and this in turn could have a negative impact on smaller companies.

However, campaigners said the commissioner has “recognised the problem”.​ Foodwatch’s Oliver Huizinga explained: “A special tax for manufacturers of sugar beverages has long been overdue. Coke and [other manufacturers] need financial incentives to reduce the sugar content of their products.”

Green light for taxes

The movement towards sugar taxes has been building for some time – not least because it’s an easy concept for consumers to grasp. ​The World Health Organisation has also backed the concept, stating that a levy on sugary drinks would result in “proportional reductions in consumption”​ – especially if the retail price were to increase by 20% or more.

In November, Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition commissioner confirmed that member states are free to impose taxes on products or activities that have a negative effect on the environment or human health so long as the measure doesn’t unfairly favour certain goods.

Andriukaitis’s comments chime with those he made in an interview with the Financial Times​ recently. Asked whether he supports sugar taxes and other legislative measures to reduce unhealthy ingredients, he said: “I favour any measure that leads to healthier lifestyles and reduces the burden of chronic diseases.”

Speaking at a press conference after last week’s roundtable, Andriukaitis said that more action was needed on a number of fronts in order to tackle obesity: reformulation, reducing portion sizes and “making the healthy choice the easy choice”​ are all areas deserving of attention. He also called on health ministers to press their heads of state to take action. “We need political support at the highest level [in order to tackle childhood obesity],” ​he added.

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