Taxes alone won't solve the obesity crisis

8 Jan 2019


On Monday, the government unveiled a new long term spending plan for the NHS. Theresa May confirmed that over the next five years, the NHS budget will increase by £20.5bn in real terms. At the forefront of the plan were pledges to increase the early detection of cancer, improve the availability of mental health services and increase funding for community care. Whilst GPs, mental health and community care are set to benefit the most from the new strategy, the plan also proposes taking increased action to tackle childhood obesity, as increased education and exercise programmes for select patients.


Obesity is becoming a growing problem for the NHS, with more than 41,000 obese people, requiring hip or knee replacement operations last year, due to their condition. Following the introduction of a new ‘Sugar Tax’ on fizzy drinks last year, health experts are now calling for the introduction of a new tax, to tackle excessive consumption of sugary foods. This is issue has become especially prevalent amongst children. Research suggests that by the age of 10, the average child has exceeded the recommended level of sugar intake for an 18-year-old. England's Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies has called for more taxes on unhealthy products. The so called ‘Pudding Tax’ would cover products such as cakes, puddings and other products.


Despite calls for additional taxation on these types of products, the UK cannot tax its way out of obesity. Such a tax would fail to address the fundamental causes and issues associated with the problem. Nearly two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or obese. In 2016/17, 617,000 admissions to NHS hospitals recorded obesity as a primary or secondary diagnosis, suggesting that it is a growing issue.

However, simply introducing a new tax on unhealthy products will do little to combat the issue. Following the introduction of the ‘Sugar Tax’ last year on sugary drinks, polling from Mintel suggested that under half of Brits would cut down on unhealthy products, as a result of an increase in price. Consequently, consumers end up paying a higher cost for the same product, doing very little to deal with the problem at hand.


Furthermore, this would punish households on low incomes, who are significantly more likely to consume unhealthy products. NHS data shows that the socio-economic inequality in childhood obesity at school now stands at 15% between the most deprived children and the least. Far from increasing taxes on these products, alternative routes should be explored to influence consumer choice towards more healthy alternatives.


Indeed, the new long term plan has already provided some ways in which this can be accomplished including education and exercise programmes. The aforementioned polling also identified that in contrast to an additional tax, “three quarters of consumers say that easier to understand nutritional information on product packaging would encourage them to cut down on unhealthy food/drink.” Increasing awareness and understanding of the risks associated with overconsumption of these products is likely to produce far more successful outcomes than merely raising the prices of these goods.


Campaigners have also suggested that behavioural policies serve as a far better method of stemming the demand for sugary products. The Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) found that 43% of all food and drink products located in prominent areas such as store entrances and checkout areas were high in sugar content. Subsequently, many leading supermarkets have already taken steps to replace these products with health alternatives, making them more appealing and accessible to consumers.


Simply increasing or implementing additional taxes on unhealthy products will do little to influence demand for unhealthy products or tackle the growing issue of obesity. Improved information, educational campaigns and behavioural policies to make individuals aware of the problems of over consuming sugary products, are for more apt to tackle the issue.

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