A Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Medicine Go Down

George Osborne announced a tax on sugary drinks to distract from his economic failures, but the policy should be welcomed nonetheless.


The sugar tax will come into effect in two years’ time (Photo: Flickr/Paul)

The sugar tax will come into effect in two years’ time (Photo: Flickr/Paul)

Last Wednesday, George Osborne delivered his eighth Budget to the House of Commons. Unlike his Autumn Statement, which forecast a prosperous UK economy, Wednesday’s budget was contrasting in tone, warning of the economic dangers facing us in the coming year.

In what at times seemed like an admission of failure, the chancellor announced that growth forecasts have been cut for the next five years, and that he has failed to cut debt as a percentage of GDP. Furthermore, George Osborne also revealed £3.5bn worth of devastating public spending cuts. Shamefully, £1.2bn of these cuts will fall on the shoulders of the disabled, with over 370,000 disabled people set to lose an average of £3,500 a year, while the money saved will be used to fund a tax cut for the middle classes.

With such colossal public spending cuts coupled with a gloomy economic message, Osborne had to pull a rabbit out of the hat to help distract from his economic failures. His great conjuring trick took the form of a tax on sugary drinks.

Although a somewhat political move, considering the government opposed a sugar tax only one month ago, Osborne’s announcement should be welcomed nonetheless. Children are consuming three times more sugar than recommended, and the biggest source of this large sugar intake is soft drinks, accounting for 29 per cent of sugar intake among 11- to 18-year-olds and 16 per cent for younger children. Clearly, drastic action is needed to tackle this grave problem, and a tax on sugary drinks goes some way to addressing the obesity crisis; the fewer sugary drinks children consume, the fewer the health risks.

One of the criticisms of the sugar tax – set to be introduced in two years’ time – is that it may fail to reduce the amount of sugary drinks children consume. Yet in Mexico, which introduced a sugar tax two years ago, sales of sugary drinks fell by six per cent in the first year following a 10 per cent levy. And a report released last November by the cross-party Health Select Committee concluded that a tax on sugary drinks at 20 per cent would in fact be effective.

Moreover, even if the levy does fail to deter children from consuming sugary drinks, which seems unlikely, around £520m is estimated to be raised as a result of the sugar tax, which George Osborne has said will be spent on sport in primary schools. As a result, schools that benefit from the extra funding will have more resources to help tackle childhood obesity.

Few like extra tax, but when a third of 10 to 11 year olds and a fifth of four to five year olds are either overweight or obese, it is evident that action must be taken to try and prevent children from continuing to consume excessive levels of sugar, primarily from sugary drinks.

George Osborne was delivering his eighth budget to the House of Commons (Photo: Flickr/UK Parliament)

George Osborne was delivering his eighth budget to the House of Commons (Photo: Flickr/UK Parliament)

The Chancellor may have infuriated many of his fellow Conservative MPs who continue to oppose the sugar tax, seeing it as a “nanny state” policy, but Osborne was right when said, “I am not prepared to look back at my time here in this Parliament and say to my children’s generation… ‘We knew there was a problem with sugary drinks… but we ducked the difficult decisions and we did nothing.’” His words may not have been entirely sincere, but the sentiment expressed is spot on. Britain must tackle its childhood obesity problem immediately, and although a sugar tax alone will not solve the crisis, it will certainly go some way to alleviating it.

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