Opinion

Is the sugar tax a triumph of political expediency over science?

Well I for one will sleep better at night in the certain knowledge that the problem of childhood obesity is now solved, writes Andrew Marsden, chairman of Andrew Marsden Consulting and former marketing director of Britvic.

Sugar tax: the solution to childhood obesity is more complex than cracking down on sugary drinks
Sugar tax: the solution to childhood obesity is more complex than cracking down on sugary drinks

The culprit is sugar in soft drinks. If only we had all realised that a 20p-per-litre levy on the sucrose in soft drinks was the answer. Thanks to George Osborne, this clarity is now with us. Burgers, chips, chocolate and bad diets are off the hook. Hurrah!

What’s more, from 2018 English primary schools will benefit from having around £500m extra to double the funding required for much-needed sport.

Some cynics in the marketing diaspora believe this revelation was merely a piece of brilliant news management put up as a smoke screen to distract from the additional £3.8bn in cuts necessary as the forecast economic recovery slows.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This was a budget emphatically for the next generation. The Chancellor simply couldn’t live with the fact that ‘sugary drinks cause disease’ and felt compelled to act to save our children.

Diet is more important than single issues

Obesity is of course a very real health issue. In our over-supplied, centrally heated, motorised and device-filled world, mobility and the burning of calories appears to be an option fewer and fewer people espouse.

Some 10% of four- to five-year-olds, 19% of 10-year-olds and 25% of adults are obese. Obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS £5.1bn a year compared to the £3.9bn spent on the 13% of adults who smoke and end up with proven related diseases. 

It is reassuring to know that obesity is, apparently, now not a result of general over-eating, of taking in an excess general calorie intake versus calorie burn as the medics and scientists have been asserting since time immemorial.

Laughably, some of these boffins have even tried to persuade us that the body is indiscriminate and can only see food intake as a bunch of chemicals – fats, sugars and proteins with a smattering of essential minerals and vitamins.

Fortunately for us, our educationalists simply don’t see the necessity of teaching the basics of nutrition and health in our schools anymore and are content to let our children leave with this critical educational deficit, rendering them incapable of making intelligent choices about their food consumption.

Thank heavens that this silver bullet has now also relieved parents of the need to take care with their children’s diet, of educating their offspring about the need for balance  and taking care not to continuously exceed the recommended daily calorie intakes. It now makes parenting so much easier.

This is too simple a solution

It is somewhat inconvenient that around half of the soft drink market is already in no-sugar versions and the industry itself has voluntarily already progressively reduced the sugar content in the rest by around 14% in three years and has a target of 20% by 2020.

But hey, let’s not get confused by facts. This is a ‘symbolic tax’ that has the approval of food scientists like Jamie Oliver.

Do we really believe that such a stubbornly complex issue as obesity could have such a simple solution allowing us to ignore the urgent need to educate the population about their personal nutrition, or do we have a triumph of political expediency over science? Surely politicians wouldn’t trivialise such an important and intractable health issue?

Now that we have cracked obesity one can only assume that the professional lobbyists will have to move on to other simple solution issues.

So George, now back to restoring economic growth…