A 20% levy on cakes and sweets would be more effective than taxing sugary drinks.
A snack tax of 20% on biscuits, cakes and sweets would have “a huge impact” on obesity levels in the UK and be more effective than the current levy on colas and other sugary drinks, say experts.
But the idea may struggle to get past the current government. Boris Johnson took a stand against “sin stealth taxes” in July, ordering a review and opposing plans to extend the sugary drinks tax to milkshakes, which he said “seems to me to clobber those who can least afford it”.
Researchers writing in the British Medical Journal say the UK’s love of sweet snacks means it should consider taxing food as well as drinks, which would lead to a drop in sales especially among families where obesity is a problem and incomes are low.
Dr Pauline Scheelbeek from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the lead author of the study, said a snack tax could cut obesity in the UK population from about 28% to about 25%. “That is, on a population level, a huge impact,” she said.
In some countries, sugar intake is mostly from drinks, but the UK is keener on sweets and cakes. The research found that for all income groups combined, increasing the price of biscuits, cakes, chocolates and sweets by 20% would reduce annual average energy intake by about 8,900 calories, leading to an average weight loss of 1.3kg over one year. The effect would be greater among the lowest income families, where obesity levels are highest.
In contrast, a similar price increase on sugary drinks would result in an average weight loss of 203g over one year.
The impact would be greatest on the lowest income groups, leading some critics to call it a regressive tax that would hit the poorest. However, type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and strokes caused by obesity also affect the poorest most, said Scheelbeek.
Co-author Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at Oxford University and a former government adviser, argues that we need a more open-minded approach to what might work in the fight against obesity than Johnson’s “instinctive” rejection of sin taxes.