People with a sweet tooth could be hit by a financial penalty, thanks to a new initiative aimed at combating obesity. Experts believe a “snack tax” of 20% on sugary foods such as sweets, biscuits and cakes, could have a positive impact on people’s health.
A new study calling for the tax claims it will be more effective than the current levy imposed on high-sugar drinks in the battle against obesity. Calls for a tax on sweet snacks follow the launch of a similar tax on soft drinks in April 2018.
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The British Medical Association had suggested the government should tax sugar on drinks in July 2015, but it took three years for the measure to be implemented. A study by the University of Cambridge had indicated 8,000 cases of type 2 diabetes annually were linked to drinking sugary beverages.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May finally brought in the sugar tax. There’s one rate of 18p extra for soft drinks containing more than 5g of sugar per 100ml and a higher rate of 24p for drinks with a sugar level of 8g per 100ml and above.
The treasury didn’t make a fortune from the scheme, as the soft drinks manufacturers amended their recipes, rather than waiting to see how consumers would react – they didn’t wish to risk losing money if customers chose to buy cheaper low-sugar brands!
Now new research published in the British Medical Journal is suggesting a similar tax should be levied on sweet snacks. Lead author of the study, Dr Pauline Scheelbeek of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says it could result in a reduction in the number of obese people in Britain from 28% to 25%.
Although this doesn’t sound like a big drop, when you consider there are 66.87 million people in the UK, in real population terms, this means 1.9 million people currently classed as obese would be likely to lose weight if they ate less sugary snacks.
In theory, the higher cost of sweets, cakes and biscuits would deter consumers from buying them, but it would be likely that the manufacturers would do the same as soft drinks companies, cutting the sugar levels, rather than risking people not buying their products because of higher prices.
Scheelbeek said the reduction in sugar consumption would have a “huge impact” on people’s health. Although the soft drinks revolution has had an impact, studies suggest many Brits consume most sugar from cakes and sweets, rather than from soft drinks.
There are foods with high amounts of “hidden” sugar, so the researchers believe the idea of the snack tax is worth further investigation. They claim it could be a vital part of an “integrated approach” to tackling obesity in the UK today, citing that a “fiscal policy” could change consumers’ purchasing habits, ultimately improving diet and health.
Critics of the scheme fear it would hit low-income families hard, but the report’s authors say this is justified, as obesity levels are highest among people in the low-income bracket. They claim any money earned by the treasury as a result of the snack tax could be ploughed into subsidies for community health programmes, or healthy food producers.
Whether the measures will be approved by Parliament remains to be seen, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson has recently spoken out against “stealth taxes” in a speech about extending the sugar tax to milkshakes. He was of the view the taxes should not be impacting people who could least afford them.
The report’s authors have hit back, saying something must be done, after a previous move to encourage smaller portions by decreasing chocolate bars’ sizes failed. Rather than encouraging people to cut down, the manufacturers introduced “sharing” bags, containing many small bars. There was reportedly no evidence of a reduction in overall chocolate consumption, so the study called for a “new approach” altogether.
Healthy eating trend
Evidence suggests retailers are trying to introduce healthy snacks in recognition of the latest healthy eating trend. Supermarkets and other retailers have stopped the long-standing practice of having chocolate bars next to the checkout, in what some people felt was a cynical ploy to attract children.
According to a study by Trek, 85% of shoppers have expressed an interest in trying to improve their diet. Some stores are actively trying to provide healthier options, hence the growth in protein bars, healthy low-sugar snack bars and dried fruit snacks on the shelves.
Research suggests the average shopper will spend £1.44 on a single snack, whereas a shopper specifically looking for a healthy snack would be willing to spend a bit extra – up to £1.84 for a single snack. Promoters of healthy snacks believe this represents a chance not only to improve the nation’s health, but also to give retailers an opportunity to drive basket spend by providing healthier snack options.
Would a snack tax work?
The sugar tax on drinks hasn’t had a massive impact on consumer behaviour, according to a survey carried out in late 2018 by Nielsen. A massive 62% of British shoppers claimed their consumption habits hadn’t changed one bit since it was introduced.
It’s debatable whether a snack tax of 20% would be any more successful. The consumer research carried out for the Sugar Tax Shopper survey, after the soft drinks tax launch, suggested only 20% of consumers were checking products’ sugar content more frequently.
What are your thoughts on a snack tax? Do you prefer sweets and chocolates, or are you more inclined to go for the healthier options? Would higher prices deter you from buying sugary snacks? Do you support supermarkets and retailers who are making an effort to stock more healthy snacks?
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