Medics call for cake tax

Doctors are calling for the government to introduce a tax on sugary snacks, after research showed this may be more effective at reducing obesity levels than the current levy on sugary drinks

A study published in the British Medical Journal used economic modelling to assess the impact of a 20% price increase on high sugar snack foods in the UK.

Modelling was based on food purchase data for 36,324 UK households and National Diet and Nutrition Survey data for 2,544 adults. Results were grouped by household income and body mass index (BMI) to estimate changes in weight and prevalence of obesity over one year.

The results suggest that for all income groups, increasing the price of biscuits, cakes, chocolates, and sweets by 20% would reduce annual average energy intake by around 8,900 calories, leading to an average weight loss of 1.3 kg over one year.

In contrast, a similar price increase on sugary drinks would result in an average weight loss of just 203 g over one year.

Additionally, the model predicted that the impact of the price increase would be largest in low income households with the highest rates of obesity, suggesting that taxing high sugar snacks could help to reduce health inequalities driven by diet related diseases, according to the researchers.

They argue that a tax of this sort ‘has the potential to reduce overall energy purchased among all body mass index and income groups in the UK, leading to an estimated population level reduction in obesity prevalence of 2.7 percentage points after the first year.’

In the UK, obesity is estimated to affect around one in every four adults and around one in every five children aged 10 to 11, with higher rates among those living in more deprived areas.

The use of taxes to lower sugar and energy intake have mainly focused on sugar sweetened drinks. But BMJ says that in the UK, high sugar snacks, such as biscuits, cakes, chocolates and sweets make up more free sugar and energy intake than sugary drinks.

Reducing purchases of high sugar snacks therefore has the potential to make a greater impact on population health than reducing the purchase of sugary drinks.

However, while the study’s researchers argue there is a strong rationale for using fiscal policy to improve diet and health, they also highlight the need for caution.

For example, they point out that substitution and displacement effects in response to food tax and subsidy policies are complicated and difficult to predict, while product reformulation in response to consumer demand can also have unintended consequences.

They also argue that fiscal policies aimed at reducing sugar, salt, and saturated fat intake ‘might be useful, but they fail to incentivise the consumption of healthy foods.’

The soft drink levy, also known as the sugar tax, was introduced in April 2018. Drinks containing 8g of sugar per 100ml are now taxed at 24p per litre, while drinks with 5-8g of sugar per 100ml face a tax of 18p per litre.

Earlier this year government figures showed that more than £340m had been raised by the levy, with the proceeds going towards supporting healthy breakfast clubs and sports in schools. However, when campaigning to become leader of the Conservative party, prime minister Boris Johnston indicated that he would consider a review of the levy because of the disproportionate impact on lower income families.

Pat Sweet

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