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At this year’s Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband’s big idea was a new tax – namely a mansion tax. In theory, this could raise a bit of money for the NHS. In practice it would be a nightmare to implement – for reasons lucidly explained by Natalie Elphicke yesterday on this site.

Perhaps the Labour leader should have announced a tax on sugar instead, which, if nothing else, would be easier to implement. Furthermore, as well as supplying more funds for hospitals it might help tackle the obesity epidemic and therefore the escalating demands placed on the NHS.

Writing for the Daily Mail, Ian Birrell – the son of a Tate & Lyle executive – believes that urgent action, including a sugar tax, is required:

“Obesity has become a national crisis threatening to overwhelm the Health Service, which is being forced to treat ever-growing numbers of patients with weight problems and associated health problems so severe they end up in hospital.

No one should be under any illusion about the scale of the gargantuan challenge this crisis presents…

As politicians talk of raising taxes to further fund the NHS, and hospitals fall into debt, diabetes alone is already draining £1 in every ten spent on healthcare, and excess weight causes almost one in four deaths from heart disease.”

And there’s more:

“…fizzy drinks and sweets are causing a surge in tooth decay, with 500 children admitted to hospital each week with rotting teeth.

A quarter of British adults and a fifth of children are obese – numbers which have doubled in the past 20 years

“Health trusts have to splash out on super-size ambulances and £8,000 beds to cope with patients weighing up to 78st.”

Those of a libertarian disposition will argue that what we choose to eat is a purely personal matter; but the rhetoric of individual responsibility rings a little hollow when the collective consequences are so extreme.

In any case, eating (and drinking) less sugar isn’t just a matter of willpower:

“…thanks to the addition of so much sugar in processed food and drink, the amount of ‘invisible’ sugar ending up in the bellies of Britons has risen by almost a third over the past two decades.

This has made doctors increasingly desperate in their calls for action. Some even argue sugar is addictive, having a similar impact on the brain’s reward circuits as drugs such as cocaine.”

Personally, I doubt that sugar is in itself is addictive. Despite having a sweet tooth, I can have a bag of sugar in the kitchen without feeling the least bit tempted to eat so much as a spoonful – even when I’m going cold turkey on the cakes and chocolate. I’m guessing that a heroin addict wouldn’t feel the same about a bag of smack.

The point about hidden sugar is a much stronger one. Other than the economic advantage of using a cheap, but palatable, ingredient for padding out their products, there’s no reason why manufacturers should be using so much sugar in processed foods. Looking at the jar of curry sauce in my fridge, I see that it contains added sugar. Why? A standard recipe for the homemade equivalent wouldn’t include sugar among the ingredients.

The question is whether a sugar tax would bring about a change in food industry practice. If it was set high enough to dissuade producers from adding hidden sugar to savoury products, then at the same rate per gram it would make foods that are meant to be sugary ridiculously expensive. Try selling that to the voters.

A better way forward would be clearer labelling. Every processed product should state how many spoonfuls of added sugar it contains. Consumers would be able to make quick comparisons between competing brands, thereby giving manufacturers an incentive to change their ways.

The information could even be aggregated, so that every year each of the big retailers could be held to account for just how much sugar they’ve added to our national diet.

12 comments for: Should Red Ed have gone for a sugar tax instead?

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