Debate on soda tax bubbles up in UK

Health charities champion the levy in fight against obesity, but critics say measure would unfairly tax consumer choice.

In the United Kingdom, one in four adults is obese; one in three children is obese or overweight by the time they leave primary school; and more than 60 percent of the population is overweight, according to the nation’s department of health.

As a response to the country’s rising obesity epidemic, Sustain, a UK-based food and farming charity, published a report on Tuesday proposing what it sees as a partial solution: a tax on sugary drinks.

The goal? To encourage citizens to make healthier choices, and use the money raised – which the charity estimates could total £1bn ($1.6bn) if a duty of 20 pence ($0.31) per litre were levied – to fund healthy lunches and other health-promoting initiatives for primary school children.

“A duty on sugary drinks is cost-effective and has shown in lots of research to be an effective way of changing people’s behaviour,” Sustain’s campaign director Charlie Powell told Al Jazeera. “We need radical, robust, and joined up government thinking.”

Sustain, with the backing of 61 other health charities and organisations, has called upon Chancellor George Osborne to introduce the sugary drinks duty in his budget on March 20.

‘Liquid candy’

In the past few years, numerous studies, doctors, and public health proponents have routinely argued for the public health and economic benefits of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages.

How can you put a 10 percent tax on Coke, when you have a smoothie or juice drink with the same amount of sugar that has no tax? That argument, I think, is hard to overcome.”

– Dr Carl Heneghan, Oxford University

According to National Health Service (NHS) statistics, one half of the UK’s population is expected to be obese by 2050. If obesity is not curtailed, related health problems could cost the government an estimated £50bn ($79bn) per year – roughly half the current budget of the NHS.

Jennifer Pomeranz, the director of legal initiatives at the Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, echoed the opinions of many sugary-drinks-tax backers by arguing it would be positive step for public health. 

“At a minimum, studies show the tax would shift consumption away from those sugary beverages,” she told Al Jazeera. “Whether or not it has a tremendous impact on obesity rates and health, it will have health gains because these beverages have been associated with so many health problems on their own.”

Dental problems, heart disease, and type-II diabetes are some of the most prevalent health problems linked to obesity and high-sugar diets. The American Heart Association recommends an added sugar intake of no more than 36 grams per day for adult men; one 12-ounce (355ml) can of Coca Cola contains 39 grams.

Dr Carl Heneghan, the director of Oxford University’s Centre of Evidence-Based Medicine who has worked on research showing how childhood obesity negatively affects the heart, said the initiative would be a good way for the government to raise money, but would not provide a comprehensive approach to the obesity epidemic.    

“If you introduce a sugar tax it would only be one small measure that should span other areas, including education, reducing the calorie content, restricting drink size, and not allowing sugary drinks to be seen as athletic or sports drinks.”

Heneghan added that while sugary drinks – often known as “liquid candy” for their high-sugar content and inability to satiate appetites – were a good target for anti-obesity legislation, he believed the tax is unlikely to be adopted.

“How can you put a 10 percent tax on Coke, when you have a smoothie or juice drink with the same amount of sugar that has no tax? That argument, I think, is hard to overcome, and points to the need for a move to set a maximum to the amount of calories in any drink per 100 millilitres, and a warning if a drink goes over a certain amount of your allotted daily intake.”

Freedom of consumer choice

But in the UK, the report has also generated a slew of negative reactions from citizens who would be hit by the tax.

On a BBC forum, Holly from Suffolk echoed the sentiments of many other commenters by saying: “We should have our own free choice on drinking pop. I am sensible and do not need to be forced to drink less by making pop too expensive!”

Others, like Jon Tydda from Harrow, regarded the tax with scepticism. Tydda told Al Jazeera that “like most other taxes on things that are ‘bad for us’, it’s a good way to raise money for the government”. He added that, while the levy would not entice him to drink less soda, it would certainly lead him to “complain about the price more”.

“I really only drink soda when I’m at the pub, and driving,” said Tydda. “So I would be financially penalised for not drinking alcohol when I have to drive home. Is that really the message the government wants to send out?”

User “Trunksforyou” likewise slammed the tax: “I drink these every so often, but I exercise and maintain good health and I am slim… why should I pay more taxes to the lazy, obese community just because they cannot be bothered to take care of themselves?”

Right now, the US has 67 percent of adults and 38 percent of children that are overweight or obese. Clearly, something has gone really wrong.”

– Jennifer Pomeranz

Similar reactions have arisen from a planned ban on the sale of sugary drinks over 16 ounces (475ml) in certain establishments in New York City, which Sustain credits as one of its inspirations for the proposed tax.

The super-sized ban, championed by city mayor Michael Bloomberg, has intensified a debate about whether or not the government is infringing on consumer freedom, and is currently being challenged in court by the soda lobby on these grounds.

In a poll conducted by the New York Times in September 2012, 60 percent of New Yorkers responded that the ban was a “bad idea”. New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, a soda-industry backed group advocating for the right of New Yorkers “to buy beverages in any size they choose”, has reached more than 525,000 supporters to date.

But Yale’s Pomeranz dismissed claims that the ban would infringe on consumer freedom.

“The sugary size serving restriction is not limiting choice at all – you can still purchase as much sugary beverage as you want, but it’s just how big the cup will be, and there’s no legal deficiency to regulating cup size within restaurants.

“Right now, the US has 67 percent of adults and 38 percent of children that are overweight or obese. Clearly, something has gone really wrong. When we are that kind of a critical stage, we do need some sort of government intervention because people are not always in a position to make a choice, especially not people living in food deserts.”

Bittersweet backlash

If New York’s precedent is any indicator for the future of a soda tax in the UK, proponents can expect a prolonged fight from soda and sugar lobbies, who have been joined by minority groups claiming the tax unfairly burdens small “mom-and-pop” establishments and members of low socio-economic brackets.

Since 2009, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola Co and the American Beverage Association have spent an estimated $70m fighting against soda taxes in the US.

In respose to Sustain’s report, Gavin Partington, the director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, released the following statement to the press: “Obesity is a serious and complex problem, but a tax on soft drinks, which contribute just two percent of the total calories in the average diet, will not help address it.

“At present, 10p out of every 60p can of drink already goes to the government, thanks to VAT. Putting up taxes even further will put pressure on people’s purses at a time when they can ill afford it.”

But even if the tax is not adopted, as UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has suggested is likely to be the case, Pomeranz believes the initiative will yield one positive result.

“If nothing else, the serving size restriction has gotten the national conversation [in the US] going,” she said. “In the UK, the debate – in and of itself – will bring progress on this topic.”

Follow Sophie Sportiche on Twitter: @slsport

Source: Al Jazeera

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