The Sugar Tax – officially the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – was introduced on April 6, and as is the way with all regressive taxes the poorest have been the hardest hit, in two significant ways. The first is the simple economic cost, and the second, more sinister, is the impact it will have on the health of the poorest.
The economic cost, which was the focus of think tanks such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance during the debate around the levy, has long been established – indeed, and quite off-putting, it was the selling point for the government to introduce the tax in the first place, arguing it would raise £520million which (dubiously) could go to funding sports programmes in school. The self-defeating nature of this reasoning should be obvious – if the sugar tax is intended to drive sugar consumption down, then that figure above will inevitably decrease, meaning the funding for school sports will in turn decrease.
What this means for consumers in real terms is that the most commonly consumed sugar drinks have risen significantly in price, with a 1.75 litre bottle of Coca-Cola going up from £1.25 to £1.49. With wages struggling to keep pace with inflation, is it really fair to impose on the poorest in society an increased living cost? All I can see is sugar drinks becoming a luxurious preserve of the middle and upper classes. And are we really comfortable with the perverse authoritarianism involved in – to paraphrase Rousseau – forcing people to be healthy?
However even the ‘improved health’ argument is turning out to be a myth. Endless research has gone into sugar replacements, such as stevia and aspartame, proving them to be just as bad, if not worse, than sugar. This might not have been a problem, but as the more common drinks have risen in price – as noted above – consumers have been driven towards cheaper, but worse, drinks. For example, in Iceland you can buy two 3 litre bottles of Pepsi Max – rich in aspartame – for £3. Similarly, as the TaxPayers’ Alliance has pointed out, the tax is directed towards more obvious scapegoats, such as Coca-Cola, rather than drinks such as Tesco own-brand chocolate milk which has roughly 2g more sugar per 100ml than Coca-Cola. Products which are at least 75 per cent milk are exempt from the levy. Consumers might think they are being more health-conscious in avoiding the obvious drinks, but are shooting themselves in the foot by buying the less healthy, cheaper products.
So, in thrusting the burden of both greater economic costs and less healthy choices upon the consumer, the poorest have been hit harder in both their wallets and their health. It is inevitable that this sugar tax must be reviewed and either revised or rejected.