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Brighton Just Became the First British City to Tax Sugary Drinks

Earlier this month, Brighton & Hove City Council announced that, backed by Jamie Oliver, it would be the first British city to introduce a voluntary 10p tax on sugar-sweetened fizzy drinks.

by Nick Chowdrey
Nov 3 2015, 11:00am

Photo via Flickr user James Mellor

Let's face it, we've known for ages that too much sugar is awful for us. But it's only recently that we've seen action to tackle the problem.

Earlier this month, Brighton & Hove City Council announced that, backed by Jamie Oliver, it would be the first British city to introduce a voluntary 10p tax on sugar-sweetened fizzy drinks, with all proceeds going to charity. The council encouraged all shops and restaurants in the city to impose the charge, saying they would provide healthier snacks in local authority buildings and do more to improve food education in primary schools.

But why is Brighton taking action now? Tom Scanlon, director of public health for the council, says that evidence of the damage caused by sugar is now too great to ignore.

"The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) published a report this summer that gave compelling evidence that eating too much sugar increases our risk of becoming overweight or obese, developing tooth decay, and increases our risk of developing Type II Diabetes," he explains. "We have been concerned about childhood and adult obesity rates for some time and want to do more in the city to support residents."

READ MORE: This Is Why Sugar Is So Damn Addictive

The figures speak for themselves. Across the city last year, there were 180 obese reception children and another 294 obese Year Six pupils, meaning about 7.3 percent of four and five-year-olds and 13.3 percent of ten and 11-year-olds in the city are classed as obese. Add to this the fact that over half the adult population is overweight or obese and it's no wonder the local NHS Trust spends £80 million a year on treating diet-related diseases.

So how is taxing fizzy drinks supposed to help with all this?

The amount of sugar in fizzy drinks truly is staggering. A survey by Action on Sugar in 2014 found that nearly four in five soft drinks on the market contained six or more teaspoons per 330 millilitres, with some containing up to 13. That's pretty insane when you consider that SACN recommends we eat a maximum of five teaspoons of sugar per day.

To compound this issue, fizzy drinks are essentially empty calories. While sugar from fruit comes packed in with fibre, minerals, and vitamins essential for a healthy diet, most fizzy drinks contain little more than water, sugar, colourings, and preservatives.

We believe that people deserve a treat in life and there's no harm in consuming these products as part of a balanced diet. Who am I as a retailer to tell my customers what they should or shouldn't be eating and drinking?

Worryingly, it's kids who are the most affected by this. A report released this month by Public Health England (PHE) revealed that British children are currently getting between 14.7 percent and 15.6 percent of their daily energy intake from sugar—that's three times the recommended amount of 5 percent. Of all the sugar kids are eating, 29 percent of it comes from soft drinks—more than any other source.

Something must be done about our intake of sugar from fizzy drinks but many in Brighton have questioned whether a sugar tax is the right option. Carla Grassy, co-owner of local restaurant 64 Degrees is one of 15 business owners to have signed up to the tax so far.

"I definitely do think the tax is viable, especially in a city such as ours where there are a large proportion of health-conscious people living here," she says. "Although sugary drinks may not be a big seller here at 64 Degrees, we feel it's important to show how easy it is to add the levy and hopefully encourage others to follow suit."

Across Brighton last year, there were 180 obese reception children and another 294 obese Year Six pupils, meaning about 7.3 percent of four and five-year-olds and 13.3 percent of ten and 11-year-olds in the city are classed as obese.

But other companies in the area not so sure. Jeremy Jacobs, managing director of Brighton's Raise Bakery won't be imposing the tax.

"I don't believe it's the retailer's place to tax individuals for personal choice," he argues. "We sell a wide range of low sugar alternatives because we've listened to consumer demands and know that there is a growing demand for this type of product. We believe that people deserve a treat in life and there's no harm in consuming these products as part of a balanced diet. Who am I as a retailer to tell my customers what they should or shouldn't be eating and drinking?"

Although Jacobs' argument could lead to a complex discussion on the morality of taxes, his point should not be ignored. A government report into the UK diet showed that those from deprived backgrounds tend to drink more soft drinks, meaning the tax will hit the poor hardest of all. It's an issue that concerns Karl Jones, managing director of Brighton restaurant Moshimo.

"The issue of food in Brighton is overlooked in many areas," he says. "We have a huge poverty gap within the city, food banks are operating at full capacity, organisations such as FareShare are working really hard to keep people fed. I think it's difficult to aim action on sugar and its health risks at people who are relying on food aid of any kind!"

Although those on lower incomes will be most affected by the tax, they may also be most likely to benefit. Obesity is higher in men and women of lower socioeconomic class and the recent PHE report revealed that children from deprived backgrounds are twice as likely to be overweight or obese.

READ MORE: Britain Is Aware of Sugar's Dangers But Still Won't Tax It

To put a tax into perspective, diet-related diseases now cost Brighton's local NHS Trust almost as much as smoking, which costs only slightly more at £82.9 million a year. It may well be time to start treating excess sugar consumption as seriously as tobacco use.

Of course, there are those that say taxing tobacco hasn't worked but research would suggest otherwise. Use has more than halved since 1960 and taxing tobacco is recommended by the World Health Organisation as an effective way to reduce consumption.

However, combatting the nation's sugar addiction requires more than just tax. The PHE report also recommends a reduction of "opportunities to market and advertise high sugar food and drink products to children" and a gradual deduction of sugar levels in "everyday food and drink products."

The results of Brighton's sugar tax remain to be seen but the mere existence of such a levy shows that local governments realise they can no longer ignore this particular public health issue.

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