The chancellor has been forced into a number of embarrassing u-turns and climbdowns in his time, and with his ambitious forecasts from his November Autumn statement massively off, this week’s Budget was no exception. But by far the biggest bombshell was the sugar levy, and there’s surely no going back.
Unlike the infamous pasty tax, I can’t see The Sun campaigning to ‘Save Our Coke’, for example. In fact, it’s been cleverly crafted all round. In imposing a levy only on soft drinks, George Osborne has picked on a soft target, zeroing in on a category that SACN’s seven-year study clearly identified as the biggest contributor to childhood calorie overconsumption, but leaving the rest of the industry unscathed.
Whether the levy makes any difference to obesity - in children or adults - is almost beside the point. With the obesity strategy delayed, the chancellor can get the anti-sugar brigade off the government’s back, allowing campaigners such as Jamie Oliver to proclaim victory. And Osborne has further softened the blow by delaying the levy by two years.
A bit like his proposals for Sunday Trading (on which he’s since been forced to climb down, of course) the chancellor has also left it up to manufacturers and retailers to decide whether to pass on the charges or not. Perhaps they will seek to pass them on on some SKUs but not others. An 8p levy on a can of Coca-Cola is one thing; 42p extra on a 1.75-litre bottle (that can sell for as little as £1 in some deals) is quite another. But the net result is clear. If consumers end up having to pay more for drinks they enjoy, it will be the fault of industry, not government. (On the other hand, it could also backfire: it’s quite possible manufacturers will increase the price of diet drinks to avoid too great a disparity. It’s not just politicians who make cynical moves.)
What is unthinkable is that the soft drinks industry will not continue its journey of innovation and reformulation so that more drinks fall within both the 5g-8g per 100ml and the <5g per 100ml categories - like Ugly, the zero-calorie zero artificial sweetener carbonated soft drink we cover in our feature on Disrupters - as well as further investment behind juices, smoothies and milk shakes (which the chancellor took great care to stress would be exempt).
As clever as this all sounds in political terms, however, it also shines a light (again) on the chronic lack of joined-up thinking within government over its public health strategy.
Less than 24 hours after the Budget, Public Health England announced changes to its Eatwell Guidance that ran totally counter to this, ruling that a) smoothies should only count as one portion of your 5 a day fruit and veg (despite most of the population struggling to meet this recommendation); and b) advising consumers to slash the amount of food coming from dairy (including milk and milk shakes) by 700 basis points (more than the 500 basis points cut the PHE simultaneously advised on crisps and chocolates).
The latter bombshell, in turn, will have left Defra equally stunned. Not only does PHE’s new advice on dairy run counter to the obsession with sugar as the biggest cause of obesity, it could not have come at a worse time, with the dairy industry on its knees due to overproduction. One struggles to imagine how farmers might react next. Or the chancellor for that matter.