The British Medical Journal has published the findings of research led by Dr Pauline Scheelbeek which concludes that a 20% tax on sugary treats could reduce national obesity levels by 3%. Doesn’t sound much. But she says, “That is, on a population level, a huge impact.”

Don’t we already have a sugar tax?

You’re right, the UK does already have a ‘sugar tax’ on sugary drinks. It’s official name is the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) and it only started in April 2018. Manufacturers must pay 18p per litre tax on drinks with 5-7.9g of sugar per 100ml, and 24p on those with 8g or more per 100ml.

Has it worked? This has encouraged the soft drinks industry to alter their recipes and 50% have now reduced the sugar content of their beverages.

So what would a broader sugar tax cover?

The scientific research focused on three areas: confectionery (sweets and chocolate), biscuits and cakes. They are not looking at manufacturers to alter recipes here. The intention is to add 20% to their cost in order to discourage people from buying as many. Of course, it has been dubbed a ‘snack tax’.

What difference would it make to the UK’s obesity problem?

The report summarises how the research was measured in terms of sugar energy, number of calories, and the subsequent weight loss per individual in one year.

So, they found that a 20% increase in cost would bring about a decrease in an individual’s average annual sugar energy intake by 8,900 calories. Resulting in weight loss of 1.3kg in just one year. All because they don’t buy as many sweets, chocolate bars, cakes and biscuits because they cost a bit more.

This has double the impact when compared with sugary drinks. Here there would be a loss of 203g in one year, if they had an extra 20% tax. In the UK we eat far more sugary snacks than we drink sugary beverages.

The idea also includes using the money raised specifically to subsidise the cost of fruit and vegetables.

Are there any arguments against this ‘snack tax’?

Apart from the obvious profit concerns from manufacturer and retailers making and selling these products, some say this is a tax on low income families. Statistically, they buy the highest proportion of sugary snacks, so they will be most hit buy an increase in price.

Conversely, subsidies on fresh fruit and vegetables will benefit higher income families because they already buy more fresh produce.

But the health problems connected to obesity, like heart attacks, strokes and type 2 diabetes, are more prevalent in lower income families. By quite startling margins. So it can be argued that a tax on sugary snacks is a way to really improve the health of lower income families.

Is the UK’s obesity problem really that bad?

27.8% of adults in the UK are obese. That’s nearly one in three. When you break down the figure by income, there are significant differences in this for women and children. The most recent numbers are from 2016, they show:

  • 38% of women in the most economically deprived are obese.
  • Only 20% of women in the least economically deprived areas are obese.
  • In the highest fifth income bracket, 18% of children are obese.
  • This shoots up to 26% of children in the lowest fifth income section.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the world average is 19.5%. Remember, we sit at a 27.8% average. The global level of obesity has tripled from 1975 to 2016, to two billion adults being overweight and 650 million obese.

The health risks with being obese are serious: various cancers, type 2 diabetes, strokes, ischaemic heart disease, to name but a few. Devastating to individuals and their families. A significant financial concern for our country’s health and social care provision.

So, yes, our obesity problem is bad. Both for the individuals and the country as a whole. Perhaps 20% on sugary snacks, leading to a 3% reduction in obesity rates is something we could all agree on. After all, it’s really only a few pence on a packet of biscuits or sweet treat.