The Soft Drinks Industrial Levy – commonly referred to as the Sugar Tax – was introduced on the 6th of April of this year and, like all regressive taxes, the people it has hit the hardest have been the poorest, 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 like the Taxpayer’s Alliance during the debate around the levy, has long been established – indeed, it was the selling point for the government to introduce the tax in the first place, arguing it would raise £520 million, which (dubiously) could go to funding sports programs 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 sharply in cost – with a 1.75 litre bottle of Coca Cola rising 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 class. And are we really comfortable with the perverse authoritarianism involved in – to paraphrase Rousseau – forcing people to be healthy?
But the “improved health” argument is proving itself 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. And 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 the 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 Taxpayer’s Alliance has pointed out, the tax is directed towards more obvious scapegoats, such as Coca Cola, rather than the less obvious drinks such as Tesco own-brand chocolate milk which has roughly 2g more sugar per 100ml than Coca Cola, meaning that consumers might think they are being more health-conscious in avoiding the obvious drinks, but shooting themselves in the foot by buying the less healthy, but still cheaper drinks.
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 interrogated and either revised or completely rejected.
Jake Scott is editor of the Mallard and a Master’s student of Political Theory at the University of Birmingham.