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Is The Sugar Tax Justified?

Thoughts on the Sugar Tax

If you have a sweet tooth, you might have found the proposals to impose a tax on sugary drinks in the latest Budget slightly disappointing.  There is no denying that childhood obesity is a problem in the UK and that steps need to be taken to combat it, but is a sugar tax the right step to take?

From April 2018, the sugar tax will be levied upon producers, importers, retailers and consumers of any soft drinks which have added sugar.  Some alcoholic drinks, with a volume of up to 1.2% will also have the tax applied.  Fruit juices are exempt as they contain naturally occurring sugars, but purchasers will be advised to limit their consumption.  There will be two levels of tax; a lower rate of 18p per litre which will apply to those drinks which have 5g or more sugar per 100ml and a higher rate of 24p per litre for those drinks which have 8g or more sugar per 100ml.  Your standard 330ml can of coke contains 35g of sugar, the equivalent of 7 teaspoons, so will be hit hard.

Many organisations including Diabetes UK and the charity, Action on Sugar, have been campaigning for this outcome for some time and have welcomed the news.  It also has the backing of dentists as a means of reducing tooth decay.  A triumph for many it seems, but is sugar getting an unfair press?

Sugar is a naturally occurring carbohydrate and is present in the structure of most natural products in one form or another, e.g. fructose in fruit and lactose in milk.  We tend to think of it as it is most commonly used, in granulated crystal form, sourced from sugarcane and sugar beet.  It is used in baking, e.g. cakes and biscuits and is added to other foods for sweetening and flavour.  Sugar is also a natural preservative, causing bacteria to lose water which impedes its ability to live and multiply, prolonging the shelf life of many products.

It would not be unreasonable to say that sugar is essential in our diets because it is.  Sugar provides vital energy for our muscles and helps to keep our brains functioning effectively. There is a recommended daily allowance of added sugar per day of 30g or 7 teaspoons for adults.  The problem comes when too much is consumed as it can lead to all sorts of health problems including diabetes, obesity and tooth decay.  All these are on the rise amongst children.

Is a tax on sugar the answer to these issues and will it stop excessive intake?  It is true that there is almost an epidemic when it comes to childhood obesity but a hike in prices is unlikely to reduce consumption.  Most people that this is aimed at will continue to buy what they want and be prepared to pay the extra pennies, as we have seen with exorbitant petrol prices and 5p carrier bags.  It would be more effective to roll out an educational programme for adults and children, perhaps through television or social media, which presents them with the key information they need to know about sugar and added sugar in items like soft drinks so that they can make their own decisions and take action if required.

Producers are already looking at other ways to reduce added sugar and a popular method is to use alternative, synthetic sweeteners which are still, at this point, somewhat of an unknown quantity in terms of effects on the body.  Some groups do not want the tax to stop at soft drinks and are calling for it to be imposed on other goods such as sweets and confectionary.  Where will it all end?  Sugar should not necessarily be demonised, it does have its place and should be a small part of your staple diet, but in moderation and it is that moderation which should be encouraged and promoted in a helpful, informative way that gives the public the freedom to make their own choices.