Last year’s December Newsletter already highlighted how the mood in Britain on sugar taxation is changing. Will Europe follow suit?
Recently the UK National Health Service (NHS) decided to single-handedly implement a sugar tax in its hospitals. By 2020, as the various food catering contracts are renewed, all facilities should have a levy on sugary products in place, or have removed them from public spaces altogether.
On 20 January, Food Standards Scotland accepted a number of ‘radical’ proposals to improve the diet of the Scottish population. Measures encompass sugar taxes, marketing restrictions, action on portion sizes and tough targets on food reformulation. These recommendations will now be presented to the Scottish Government, which has already proved its strong stance on health issues by standing up to the global alcohol lobby in defense of a minimum alcohol price.
This month also came with a reminder that something radical actually needs to happen. The UK Health Forum and Cancer Research UK launched a joint report which predicts that almost ¾ of adults in the UK will be overweight or obese by 2035 and that these rising levels of obesity would lead to an additional 670,000 cases of cancer and cost an additional £2.5 billion to the health service.
Taxation: the opportunity cost of voluntary food reformulation
At a European level, developments, although more cautious, are happening too. The EU Presidency of the Netherlands has stated that it sees food reformulation as a priority and the “High Level Group on Nutrition and Physical activity”, composed of national government representatives, adopted a document calling for a 10% reduction in added sugar across Europe.
But, will food reformulation through a cooperative, public-private partnership approach actually deliver sufficient changes? And what is the opportunity cost in economic terms of focusing all attention on reformulation, as opposed to looking at other alternatives?
As evidence from Mexico published this month in the BMJ shows: this opportunity cost may be quite high. A 10% tax on sugar-sweetened beverages introduced by Mexico delivered striking results after only one year. Purchases of taxed beverages decreased at a rising rate, reaching a 12% reduction towards the end of the first year. Tax effects among low income households were even more pronounced as the reduction went up to 17% compared to pre-tax trends. These represent significant decreases in sugar consumption.
By Nikolai Pushkarev, Policy Coordinator Food, Drink & Agriculture, EPHA