The sugar tax looks more like a way to raise money than cut obesity

Last week, the Government published a draft of the legislation intended to implement the Soft Drinks Industry Levy or sugar tax. This was supposed to be the most contentious aspect of this year’s UK Budget. Perhaps the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, George Osborne, was hoping it would provide cover for some the other measures that blew up in his face, like forcing all schools to become academies or cutting disability benefits. Osborne is gone now, but the sugar tax lives on.

The tax is supposed to add about 8p to the cost of a can of Coca Cola from April 2018. Many people have been justifiably concerned it will fall disproportionately on the poor. Research on the effectiveness of sugar taxes is mixed but there is some evidence that they might be effective in reducing sugar consumption. The Government is certainly justified to give it a go. Even if we find it doesn’t work, that’s useful to know, as long as politicians are willing to admit to their failure.

From the point of view of designing effective new taxes, the soft drinks industry levy seems sensible. For example, the Government doesn’t want ordinary people to have to pay the tax themselves. Think about the way the income tax and national insurance on our salary are paid via PAYE before we ever get our hands on it. That lessens the pain we feel about losing a large chunk of our wages to HM Treasury each month. The sugar tax works on the same principle. It’s paid by drinks manufacturers rather than by consumers. Of course, the cost will be passed on to the people buying the drinks, but then all taxes are ultimately paid by human beings. The sugar tax will also be a stealth tax. We won’t see it on our shopping receipts or know exactly how much we are paying.

The art of designing a tax is to ensure that it brings as much money as possible with the minimum of political blowback. In other words, it “consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.” Nonetheless, the sensible implementation of the sugar tax might be an obstacle if it is supposed to reduce obesity rather than raise revenue. If people are not aware they are paying the tax, they are unlikely to alter their behaviour as a result of it. It might work better if the amount payable was emblazoned on soft drinks’ packaging for all to see.

How can we tell if the sugar tax is working? It is currently expected to raise a bit over £500 million in its first year of operation. If that number goes down, it means sugar consumption is going down too. Ideally, the revenue from the tax would drop to nil as we stop consuming sugary drinks at all. However, as it happens, the Government is only predicting a slight decrease in the revenue raised each year, suggesting that it does not expect the sugar tax to have much effect on our drinking habits.

For the moment, the Government is relying on the manufacturers to cut the sugar in their products. However, if the sugar tax doesn’t cut our intake, the Government might be tempted to increase the rate until it has an effect. It wouldn’t be long until the soft drinks levy brings in £1 billion plus a year and becomes just another revenue raising sin tax like cigarette and alcohol duties. If that happens, the naysayers claiming it is just way to extract cash from the feckless poor would be proved right.

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