The case against sugar as the main driver of diabesity has been convincingly made, but the case for a sugar tax less so. Would levying the suggested 20p per litre (that’s about seven pence on a can of fizzy drink) really put people off? Unlike the plastic bag levy, a sugar tax would not be charged separately at the till as an optional extra but be swallowed up in the overall cost. Few comfortably off consumers will blink or even notice. Those counting their pennies might, but would it actually change their buying habits or simply - to their minds - make life tougher?
There’s no getting away from the regressive universality of the sugar tax as proposed. The cavalier assertion that because working class people suffer most from sugar-related ill health they must undergo fiscal behaviour modification therapy for their addiction is no substitute for more considered policy measures.
But playing along with the cure-through-personal-taxation hypothesis, how might the food industry react in the unlikely event that the government enacts such a tax? I suspect sugar-touting companies will try to confuse us all by arguing it is unfair to levy a fixed tax on all sugary drinks when the percentage of sugar they contain varies. If we are taxing an ingredient, then quantity is relevant. Is a drink a little or a lot sugary? These calculations could be as arguable as Value-Added Tax.
To further muddy the water, there’s the complication of artificial sweeteners. However sweet they taste, they are sugar-free, but are they any better for us? A growing body of research suggests using chemical sweeteners do not help control weight. Some research is now demonstrating that by upsetting the hormones that regulate appetite, they may have even worse effects on our bodies than classic sugar. To end the obesity epidemic we surely need to un-sweeten our palates. Chemically sweetened products fail to do so, yet they will be the main beneficiaries of any crackdown on sugar.
I fully share the frustration that is powering the call for a sugar tax, but thus far it looks awfully like a flawed public health measure that’s as simplistic as traffic-light labelling. And that has got us precisely nowhere.
Joanna Blythman is a journalist and author of Swallow This