Dr Oliver Mytton and Dr Mike Rayner of the Department of Public Health at Oxford said a tax of around 20 per cent – roughly equivalent to extending VAT – could lead to a drop in obesity-related diseases.
Estimates suggest taxing sugary drinks and other unhealthy foods could cut up to 2,700 heart disease deaths a year. Denmark became the first country in the world to introduce a fat tax last October, with a surcharge on foods high in saturated fat, while France has taxed sweetened drinks.
Dr Rayner said ‘Obesity has rocketed recently and if anything our diet is getting worse. We need to take steps to tackle this problem as a nation. It’s affecting our health and it’s affecting our wallets through the increased burden on the NHS and the taxpayer.
The Oxford team claim government intervention such as taxation can be justified when the market fails to provide the ‘optimum’ good for society’s well-being, as with the duties on alcohol and tobacco, for example.
‘We have taxes on unhealthy goods such as tobacco and alcohol. And we don’t have taxes on books as they can be seen as a public good to be encouraged.’ There would be benefits for the healthcare system too. It would save taxpayers’ money through reduced NHS costs as well as combat diet-related disease such as obesity and heart disease. ‘It is also likely that a tax on unhealthy foods would act as an incentive to encourage manufacturers to change what goes into their products and make them healthier over time’ he added.
A tax on sugary drinks is not going to cure obesity by itself, said Dr Rayner, there needs to be a strategy to deal with the affordability, the availability and the promotion of unhealthy foods.’ VAT is already applied to some foods and drinks in this country, but it is done inconsistently – as the recent pasty tax debate revealed. ‘VAT should be totally reformed in line with health goals’’ says Dr Rayner. Taxes can have untoward or unexpected effects, and it is possible that a tax on saturated fats, like that introduced in Denmark, could be counter-productive, suggests Dr Rayner.
In avoiding some foods high in saturated fat, people could replace them with foods high in carbohydrates – food that also tends to be high in salt. The overall effect on health might be negative. That is why Dr Rayner believes a tax on sugary soft drinks is the best option. Even if people moved to diet drinks instead, it would still be beneficial for health. ‘A tax on sugary drinks is one measure that is a sure, safe bet that would change how many calories people consume across the nation and have a significant effect on obesity levels,’ says Dr Rayner.
Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition last year said a 10 per cent ‘fat tax’ would drive down sales of sugary drinks and encourage consumers to swap to healthier alternatives.
A similar rise in the price of full-fat milk would lead to people drinking reduced fat milks instead. Oh dear! Rather like packaging it is a shame that the tax cannot be more manufacturer focused as once gain it is the poor consumer who has to face the consequence.