UK campaigners suggest London soda tax

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Campaigners have suggested that a 20p per litre tax on sugary drinks will improve health and save money - but are such ideas realistic?
Campaigners have suggested that a 20p per litre tax on sugary drinks will improve health and save money - but are such ideas realistic?

Related tags Sugary drinks Nutrition

A suggested 20 pence per litre tax on sugary drinks in London would benefit health and save up to £39 million in healthcare, say campaigners. 

The levy, proposed by the Children’s Food Campaign, could reduce rates of diabetes, strokes, heart disease and bowel cancer in London by thousands say those behind the suggestion.

Indeed, it is estimated that the introduction of a 20 pence per litre duty on sugary drinks would save the NHS and public health budgets £39 million over twenty years.

“A duty on sugary drinks of 20 pence per litre would be the most practical and effective way of tackling a significant source of unnecessary calories and sugar in children and young people’s diets,” said ​Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign. “Mexico, France and Hungary have already introduced a sugary drinks duty, and their citizens are reaping the benefits.”

Clark warned that UK politicians “can no longer hide behind the idea that it wouldn’t be popular, or is an untried policy” – noting that CitizensUK, trade unions ‘and dozens of other organisations’ all support a duty.

According to research published in association with University of Liverpool academic Brendan Collins and FoodActive, if the UK government introduced a 20 pence per litre sugary drinks duty, then the impact in London over twenty years would be to reduce the cases of diabetes by over 630, prevent over 1100 cases of cancer, and reduce strokes and cases of coronary heart disease by over 4300.

A realistic option?

While the idea of a levy on sugary drinks is not new, it could be politically dangerous.

Indeed, leading politicians have already categorically stated that food taxes will not be put in place by the next UK government, while the current UK government’s back-tracking over its proposed ‘pasty tax’ after public outcry also suggests that future food taxes will not be successful.

“Jeremy Hunt for the Conservatives and Luciana Berger for Labour have both said explicitly, with a candour rare among British politicians before a General Election, that if they form the next government they will not impose any food taxes. Full stop,”​ said Professor Jack Winkler. “You cannot be clearer than that. It will not happen.

Winkler added that while he is ‘strongly in favour’ of using price instruments to aid nutritional objectives – the latest suggestions, like many before them, fail to balance taxation of ‘bad’ foods with lowering the price of ‘good’ foods.

He also noted the fact that soft drinks are among the most heavily promoted products on earth, means that a 20p per litre tax could ‘get lost amidst all the promotional razzamatazz,’ while previous modelling studies have shown that such a low tax would have very little effect on actual consumption levels.

Winkler also told us that, like many other public health groups, the new campaign does not mention the cases where food taxes have been rejected – which include not only the UK and Denmark, but also US cities, including Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and Washington.
“After these negative experiences, no democratically elected politician in the UK is likely to risk proposing food taxes,”​ said the nutrition policy expert. “Which is why both Hunt and Berger have gone out of their was to disavow them.”

Despite these issues, Winkler said that he is in favour of food taxes in principle, but conceded that the fact that in many cases they are economically ineffective and politically unacceptable means that policy makers and campaigners need to be pragmatic.

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