The Bar Man, by Jeff Hoyle, November 16, 2018
There is a new drink tax in town, but for once it isn’t on alcohol.
What is whipping the population into a state of fury/mild indifference, depending on your choice of daily paper, is the sugar tax.
From April this year, soft drinks with 5 grams or more of sugar per 100 millilitres are subject to a tax of 18p per litre (5-8g/100ml) or 24p per litre 8g/100ml+. For once, alcoholic drinks with an abv of 1.2% or over are not covered by the tax.
It is easy to understand the rationale behind the tax, with the consumption of sugar being implicated in a number of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), ones which are a result of lifestyle choices, rather than caught from a virus or microbe.
There has been the predictable division of opinion, with sugar producers, manufacturers and some consumers generally lining up against the tax, while health professionals generally support it.
Will it be effective? It may be a surprise to learn that Britain no longer leads the world, and a similar scheme was introduced in Mexico in 2013, and evidence suggests that it has resulted in a drop in sugar consumption of around 7.5%.
Some companies have quietly been reformulating their products, with Barr’s Irn Bru perhaps being the most high profile, so it is reasonable to suppose that a change in customer behaviour, coupled with a sugar reduction in some drinks, will have the desired effect.
While I personally welcome this, I have my reservations. It is not that I think taxes should be abolished. All societies need to pay for their government, and if we want strong defence, the NHS, education and the rest, we need to pay for it.
However the sugar tax will impact more on the poorer sections of society. A 20% increase in Coca Cola will not have much impact on a well-paid businessman, but it could be quite hard for a poor family.
Taxes are better if they are levied according to the ability to pay. However, my main reason for my hesitation is that this is a tax that has been imposed to change lifestyle rather than to increase revenue.
True, the expected take is in the region of £800 million, which is promised for sport in schools, but this is really an added bonus.
In the past taxes have been to raise money. It could be argued that the tax on tobacco has been increased due to health concerns, but this has always been a central plank of government finances.
The 5p charge for single use plastic bags is collected by the shops and donated to charity, and is somewhat different.
As far as I am aware this is the first attempt by the government to influence public behaviour by the imposition of tax, and it raises some questions, the key one being whether the role of the government includes protecting public health.
If it is agreed that this is a function of government, what happens if it fails in this task? We have seen how Health and Safety laws, coupled with a culture of litigation, has resulted in an over-zealous application of measures in an attempt to avoid prosecution.
What happens when an overweight citizen tries to sue the government for allowing the sale of sugary confectionery?
We live in an age where TV viewers are exhorted to sue the NHS at the beginning and end of some programmes, and even if they are not successful it costs us a lot of money.
We already live in the whiplash capital of the world – could this lead to the next litigation gravy train?