Will the sugar tax help stop child obesity?

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George Osborne has recently announced a sugar tax on fizzy drinks, with the aim being to stamp down on child obesity, Oliver Dyer explores whether it actually will help to stop the disease…

Edited By Imi Byers

Fizzy drinks are sold in restaurants and shops across the country, with their unique taste and various flavours making them especially popular amongst children. Their easy, ‘grab n’ go’ convenience is emphasised with drinks such as Coca Cola and Pepsi in vending machines all over the UK and just who can resist that distinct hissing sound, synonymous with opening a fresh bottle or can of ‘pop’?

BN-JM374_0721ta_P_20150721114232However, on March 16th George Osborne announced his 2016 budget, with an imposed sugar tax on the top of its agenda. The move will see drinks with 5g of sugar per 100ml (such as Fanta) face an 18p per litre charge. Sweeter drinks, such as Regular Coke with 8g per 100ml or more, will be hit with a 24p per litre charge. All of this is due to take place in two years’ time. Osborne stated that the announcement “is a really important victory for children’s health,” and one which will help stop child obesity. But will such a move actually affect child obesity rates?

The question as to whether there was any need for this tax in the first place is one etched onto the lips of many across the UK, with both parents and professionals alike dismayed. Figures, provided by the ‘Against Sugar Tax’ campaign, suggest that child obesity rates aren’t even increasing and Government statistics (from DEFRA) show sugar consumption is actually 16% less than in 1992. A spokeswoman for the campaign said, “We are against a sugar tax because the increases in child obesity are actually starting to stabilise, and have been doing so since around 2004. They are not going down, but they are not going up as much as they were in the late 1990s.”

Karen Nicholls, 34, and mother of six, is also sceptical as to whether there even is a child obesity problem in the UK. Karen’s son Mekhi, who is in reception, was called overweight despite only weighing 4 stone. “The nurse rang me to say Mekhi is classed as overweight. They go by the child’s BMI [Body Mass Index].” Karen said, “It makes you feel bad as a parent, but then I look at my son and wonder how skinny they want a child to be.” So, with the argument that rates are not increasing and doubts arising as to whether there even is a child obesity problem, does anyone even agree with the tax?

imgID59777382.jpg-pwrt3Well, according to Osborne, the government “have listened to the nutritionists across the country” with most agreeing with the imposition of a sugar tax. Rowena Paxton, a 68 year old Nutritionist from Salisbury, does support the tax, dispelling claims that the government are using the tax as a money making initiative. “I think genuinely it is more a move to improve health than raise money. But it is an over simplistic step, even if in the right direction.” However, she did point out that it’s not just sugar from fizzy drinks that can cause child obesity. “There is not much in the way of added sugar in a processed white loaf, but the processed carbohydrate has the same impact on insulin response and therefore weight”, Rowena added.

Suggestions that the tax will actually be worse on the health of children are also worrying, with chemicals being added as a cheaper substitute to sugar in fizzy drinks. Rowena said, “Companies could start using fructose instead of glucose, which is what happened in the USA… that led to high fructose corn syrup being used in everything, and Americans literally became square shaped because it had such a dire impact on hormones.” What was a move to improve child health could actually be doing the exact opposite if these substitutes are added.

downloadTalk that the tax will have a financial effect on ‘the poor’ rather than actually influence a child’s diet is also rife with statistics provided by campaign group ‘Against Sugar Tax’, suggesting that it is going to financially penalise the lower economic groups. “The poorest households spend 16.5% of their budgets on food, compared with the average household, who only spend 11.4%”, the group stated. This notion is also shared by editor of liberal website Politics.co.uk, Ian Dunt. “The first thing this does is tax the poor more, and usually these sort of ideas are suggested by middle class people who live very healthy lifestyles. It’s a terrible idea and is deeply regressive.” Ian also feels that it is down to the person to choose whether or not to consume healthily, “If people choose to consume unhealthy products with a much higher likelihood of dying earlier then that is there choice and isn’t necessarily something the government should interfere with.”

So, with some believing it’s a step in the right direction, and many others believing the tax is financially penalising the poor, the question as to whether sugar tax will actually help to stop child obesity remains. Nutritionist Rowena Paxton believes that the tax will help but minimally, saying people need to think about what they eat more: “It probably will [help] but it will be quite marginal. We expect our food to be cheap and we are not prepared to cook it ourselves; the result is low nutrient, high calorie, high additive processed eating which leads to disrupted fat handling mechanisms.”

ready_meal_I1In contrast with Rowena Paxton’s opinion, political specialist Ian Dunt doesn’t think that taxing fizzy drinks will effect child obesity, pointing at food products as the real problem. “Concentrating only on drinks is a very odd way to proceed. To help stop child obesity one might start looking at the amount of sugar that’s in ready-meals which most people aren’t even aware has any sugar- when you get a Chicken Tikka Masala you don’t necessarily think it has sugar, but mostly that sugar is used as a substitute for paste.” There are suggestions however that this tax could just result in parents and children seeking low-priced, more sugary alternatives and Ian agrees. “Some evidence from overseas suggest that consumers just switch to a cheaper brand, so there is some sort of market change in response, but I’d be very surprised if there was a significant change in childhood obesity on the back of it.”

With the tax itself not coming into place for another two years, only time will tell as to whether or not it will actually effect child obesity. Judging by the general consensus- it doesn’t look likely.