5 reasons why Boris Johnson’s ‘sin tax’ comments are wrong

5 reasons why Boris Johnson’s ‘sin tax’ comments are wrong

On the same day Cancer Research UK suggests that obesity is the leading cause of four of the most common cancers in the UK, we found out that one of the two candidates in the running for a place at Number 10, Boris Johnson, would examine whether taxes on foods high in salt, fat and sugar are effective, and has vowed not to introduce any new ones until the review is complete. He is of course making specific reference to the UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy (more commonly known as the Sugar Tax), introduced last April and to the recent news that milk-based drinks may be included in the levy in the future.

Johnson claims that taxes on food and drinks products unfairly hit those on low incomes and suggests that simply encouraging the public to be more physically activity, not policy, is the way to tackle the obesity crisis.

Food Active are not only concerned by these remarks from the odds-on favourite to become the next PM, but also regard Johnson’s claims to be ultimately invalid and untrue. Here’s 5 reasons why we think Mr Johnson is wrong:

  1. There is already a review of the sugar tax taking place: We question why Mr Johnson would need to assign a review of whether the current UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) is working or not – when there is already one taken place. We already know that it has prompted a significant change in the soft drinks industry manufacturers – half reduced sugar in their drinks before it was introduced in April 2018, removing the equivalent of 45m kg of sugar. A group of top researchers at CEDAR/University of Cambridge led by Professor Martin White are currently in the process of evaluating the impact of the SDIL, funded by the National Institute for Health Research. The study is not due to publish its final results until the end of 2021, but for now – why not leave it to the professionals Mr Johnson.
  2. There is evidence that such taxes work: Mr Johnson has stated we need to start basing tax policy on ‘clear evidence’. Well, we aren’t the only country to have introduced policy to tackle the issue of sugary drinks. In fact, countries all across the globe are doing so, recognising the issues that these drinks present to public health. To name a few examples, in Mexico, a one peso per litre sugary drinks tax (a 10% price increase) led to a 12% fall in consumption overall, and 17% fall in consumption among lower income households. In Hungary, a tax on sugary products led 40 per cent of manufacturers to reduce or eliminate sugar to avoid the tax. We do on the other hand have evidence that voluntary measures, as opposed to policy and legislation, definitely don’t work.
  3. This Soft Drinks Industry Levy isn’t a tax on consumers, it’s an Industry Levy – thus the name: The aim of the UK SDIL was first and foremost a levy on manufacturers – not consumers. It aims to encourage soft drink producers to reduce the content of sugar in their product range to below the two thresholds in the levy. Should they do so, they are exempt from paying any tax. For those who have not reformulated, they are liable to pay tax. As a last resort, it was hoped that businesses would absorb the tax – but these profit-driven companies have chosen to pass on the tax to their consumers instead – the equivalent of about 8p for a 330ml can of Coca-Cola. This was not the intended outcome of the tax and simply a choice by some soft drink manufacturers who refused to co-operate.
  4. The poorest have the most to gain, not loose: Here in the UK, the gap between the poorest in the rich continues to widen and health inequalities persist in our most vulnerable communities. The sobering fact is that children who are living in deprived areas are more than twice as likely to be obese compared to the least deprived children. Children also living in deprived areas are also exposed to other drivers of obesity, including access to fast food and takeaway, limited access to healthier food, poor access to green space and much more. Mr Johnson’s claims that such taxes ‘clobber the poor’ are ill thought out, given that policies that help to reduce the whole population’s – including the poorest – consumption of sugar sweetened beverages have enormous potential to make a positive impact
  5. You can’t run off a bad diet: Mr Johnson has claimed we need to move away from the ‘nanny-state’ and encourage people to ‘move more’ in order to lose weight. If only it was that simple. This statement from Mr Johnson illustrates his clear lack of knowledge and ignorance of what actually causes and drives people to gain weight and become overweight or obese. No one ever said the SDIL was the answer to obesity – because there is no one single answer. Fiscal measures are just one component of a multi-faceted approach that is required if we face any chance of tackling obesity and giving the future generations the best start in life – action is required at all levels, and if you become Prime Minister, Mr Johnson – that includes you too.

 Alex Holt, Food and Nutrition Lead, Food Active said:

“Here at Food Active, we spent years campaigning for the introduction to the SDIL. We even launched a campaign dedicated to raising awareness of the harms of consuming too many sugar drinks in 2015, Give Up Loving Pop, which played an instrumental role in the introduction of the levy.

Food Active, along with other campaign groups including Sustain, Action on Sugar and the Obesity Health Alliance, fought long and hard to get this all-important policy over the line, and we are not about to let it be threatened by a politician who do not has the facts.”

Matthew Ashton, Lead Director of Public Health, Food Active said:

“It is severely disappointing to see these comments made by one of our potential new Prime Ministers. Now is not the time to be shying away from the Government’s responsibilities to tackle the obesity crisis – it is the time to stand up and do what is best for our future generations.

Fiscal measures, as we have seen with tobacco control and alcohol, can play an important role in reducing the burden they have on public health.”


Related Articles

New 2017 Health Profiles Data: a North West perspective

This July, new Health Profiles data for each local authority (LA) have been released for 2017. From previous years Health

Overfed but undernourished: the obesity paradox

Obesity is posing a significant threat to public health not only in the UK, but also in many countries across

Guest Blog: The ‘sugar tax’ should be extended to artificial sweeteners – otherwise #BritainsFatFight will fail

Rob Percival is Policy and Campaigns Manager at the Soil Association. He leads the Out to Lunch campaign, which is