The BMA’s proposed sugar tax: simply another tax on the poor

The fat man of Europe is getting fatter. His teeth are rotting from the sugar in his coke and chocolates. He feeds his children bread and pasta instead of quinoa and couscous. It is time to tax the fat man – he must learn to stop eating sugar.

This, at least, is the new political orthodoxy in Britain. The British Medical Association has today said that ministers should:

‘Implement a duty on sugar-sweetened beverages (all non-alcoholic water based beverages with added sugar, including sugar-sweetened soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit drink, sports drinks and fruit-juice concentrates) by increasing the price by at least 20 per cent.’

Jamie Oliver – a chef whose own waistline has expanded as fast as his ego – has got there first and recently took the matter into his own hands. Customers who have the audacity to order sugary drinks at his restaurants will be hit by a 10p ‘sugar tax’. As so often, where Oliver leads, the Tories follow. George Freeman, a deputy health minister, has said that HM Treasury may soon act.  ‘If you insist on selling those products,’ he said to food companies, ‘we will tax them.’

Taxing them is a mild option compared to what Andy Burnham, the favourite to be Labour leader, suggests. He has expressed exasperation with the sugar content of cereals like Coco Pops, and has said he wants to ban them altogether. Britain may have lifted the ban on Absinthe, but Frosties may end up being verboten.

But if this goes ahead, and sugar is taxed, then who will suffer? Not, by and large, the people who frequent Jamie Oliver’s spectacularly mediocre restaurants. As government studies confirm, the most obese people tend to be the poorest people; the bottom 20 per cent. Richer is thinner.

The fat man, then, is represented by the poorest 20 per cent of Britons. Life is pretty tough for him; wages have been stagnant for years and the taxes keep on coming. If he drinks moderately, smokes, and drives, the fat man loses 37 per cent of his disposable income to ‘sin taxes’, according to a tally compiled by the Institute for Economic Affairs. If you add up duty on cigarettes, alcohol and petrol, the taxes intended to make Britain a healthier, greener country end up making it a far more unequal country.

The poor drink less alcohol and use less petrol than the rich, as you might expect. But still, the richest fifth pay 15 per cent of their disposable income in sin taxes, less than half of the burden imposed on the poorest.  Sin taxes are a pious, regressive absurdity.

And here is the real cost of living crisis. Indirect taxes – including vehicle excise duty, air passenger duty, ‘green taxes’ and duty on tobacco, alcohol and petrol – make the poor poorer. A sugar tax will only add to this problem; yet another callous levy on the lifestyle of the poor.

Ten years ago, the poor at least had a defender. John Reid, who went on to become Health Secretary, tried to warn the puritans in his own party that they risked declaring war on the working class. ‘Please be careful that we don’t patronise people,’ he said. ‘As my mother would put it, people from those lower socio-economic categories have very few pleasures in life and one of them they regard as smoking.’ Tea with two sugars is another.

If the lifestyle of the poor is unhealthy, that is because long hours and low pay offer little choice. Kept afloat by tax credits — which may be about to undergo savage cuts — low-income parents do not have the time or money to invest in fresh ingredients and cook healthy meals. They should not be punished for this – what they need is packages of support to overcome the barriers to a healthy lifestyle.

Far from curbing the obesity epidemic, a tax on sugar will add to the ‘merry-go-round’ that snatches away the benefits which the poor receive from the state. The politicians who have joined this anti-sugar brigade – from Burnham to Freeman – seem to lack any real understanding of the mechanics of taxation or the challenges of high-pressure, low-income work. It’s highly unlikely that a sugar tax will make Britain thinner; but it will certainly succeed in making the poor poorer.


  • Alan Moss

    “Britain may have lifted the ban on Absinthe.” Wrong. Britain never banned absinthe in the first place. I agree it may have been more difficult to get hold of in the UK, while it was banned in the major producing countries (Switzerland & France), but it was never banned.