Would a sugar tax work?

The  movement toward the introduction of a sugar tax appears to be having an impact. The World Health Organisation has weighed in (excuse the pun) suggesting that a 20% increase in the retail price of sugary drinks would curb consumption enough to make a difference.

“Consumption of free sugars, including products like sugary drinks, is a major factor in the global increase of people suffering from obesity and diabetes,” said Dr. Douglas Bettcher, director of WHO’s Department for the Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases.

It’s not just the WHO proposing initiatives such as this. Social media is abuzz with groups like That Sugar Film, SugarByHalf, and SUGARbriety, amongst myriad others, are strong advocates for reducing the amount of sugar we consume.

It seems that those most vehemently opposed to the introduction of a tax are companies which rely on sugar in the manufacturing of their products, and those most addicted to the products that would be taxed.

A report last month said “British Sugar… has teamed up with a number of industry associations, including the British Soft Drinks Association, the British Beer & Pub Association, and the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, to call on the Government to scrap the tax.”

Their fear was the job losses the tax would create. Interestingly, we are now seeing major soft drink manufacturers making significant changes to their offerings. Coca Cola, for example, has an extensive range of bottled water for sale around the world. Perhaps the job loss fears are unfounded if the company is willing to expand their offerings. If not, perhaps they will go the way of Kodak, who refused to adapt for the digital market.

Sugar taxes have been implemented in the UK (March 2016) and Mexico (2014). In Mexico, the tax was a paltry 0.6 cents per litre, according to a study in the British Medical Journal, but it resulted in a 6% drop in the sale of sugary drinks and a 4% rise in the sale of water and other non-taxed drinks. Perhaps the tax is working, and other countries are following suit.

The fight against Type 2 Diabetes and obesity should not stop at the introduction of a sugar tax. Blaming one ingredient – albeit a damaging one – for the dramatic rise in these health conditions is too simplistic. Added sugar is not the only problem.

Diets high in processed foods (many of which contain added sugars) and low in fresh produce, eating too much, having the wrong macronutrient balance for the body, inactivity, stress, poor sleep patterns, gut microbiome issues and the like all contribute to society’s general state of unwellness.

We might be living longer, but we’re certainly not living ‘weller’. The WHO also advices the subsidy of fresh fruit and vegetables by 10-30% and encouraging public support for sugar taxes. If the sugar tax is used to fund obesity prevention programs, as has been done in Mexico, the public tend to be more supportive.

It remains to be seen how long it takes for countries like Australia and New Zealand to tax sugar, but it seems fairly certain that it eventually will happen.

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