Experts from Oxford University have called for sugary drinks to be taxed at a level of around 20% in the UK, as one measure to encourage healthier diets and help tackle the obesity crisis in the UK.
The Oxford team argues that government intervention such as taxation can be justified when the market fails to provide the 'optimum' good for society's well-being, as with the duties on alcohol and tobacco for example.
Dr Mike Rayner of the Department of Public Health at Oxford argues that a tax on unhealthy foods would act as an incentive to encourage manufacturers to change what goes into their products and make them healthier over time, stating that, "a tax on sugary drinks is one measure that is a safe bet to change how many calories people consume across the nation and have a significant effect on obesity levels".
This seems to be the opinion presented from those health advocates who believe this is a bulletproof plan to slash obesity rates, thus reducing the incidence of obesity related ailments.
However, Dr Rayner is careful to state that a tax on sugary drinks is not going to cure obesity by itself.
The other side of the argument
A different view is being heard from the manufacturers of the food and drinks market, who feel they have worked hard over recent years to cut sugar and ensure consumers are aware of the ingredients in their products.
Richard Laming, media director of the British Soft Drinks Association, offers his thoughts: "A tax on soft drinks wouldn't help deal with obesity. Obesity has been rising even though the consumption of calories in soft drinks has not. And the latest figures show that soft drinks make up only about 2% of the average diet.
Laming is adamant that taxation of soft drinks is not the way forward, but health promotion, education and exercise would have a better impact: "The right thing to do would be to promote balanced diets and active lifestyles through information and education," he says. "Regulation and taxation do not work."
Far from the thought that the drinks industry is contributing to the obesity epidemic, Laming believes adequate steps have been taken in order to provide choice, health and nutritional information.
He says: "The soft drinks industry helps consumers by providing nutritional information on-pack, including GDA information in a signpost format. Diet, low calorie and no-added-sugar drinks now make up 61% of the market, up from around 30% 20 years ago."
Food and Drink Federation director of communications, Terry Jones, offers a similar argument: "When the whole of the food industry is focused on continuing to give hard-pressed families great-tasting food at an affordable price, discussion of adding 20% to food prices seems fanciful if not irresponsible.
"Under the Public Health Responsibility Deal, we will continue to work with government and other stakeholders to make meaningful improvements in public health through pledges in areas such as salt and calorie reduction, and our commitment to improving the health of our employees."
There is a clear difference of opinion between manufacturers who claim to adhere to progressively stricter health guidelines, and researchers who present information that they claim proves this isn't the case.
So who will win the sugar tax war? New taxes introduced in Denmark (on saturated fats) and France (on sweetened drinks) will provide an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of such measures in the coming years, and perhaps prove whether the same legislation could be as effective (or not) in the UK.
Rebecca is editorial assistant of FoodBev.com
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