Action on Sugar leave a bad taste in the mouth

Action on Sugar today attacked cereal manufacturers over their ‘scandalous’ decision not to use colour-coded labels that reveal the amount of sugar in their products. The pressure group is calling for ‘traffic light’ nutrition information to be included on all food and drink products. Campaign director Katharine Jenner said: ‘shoppers should be seeing red. And they would be if manufacturers used the correct labels’.

This is the latest in a long line of similar proposals aimed at reducing the consumption of unhealthy food. Pressure groups such as Action on Sugar have been lobbying the government for years to introduce measures such as a tax on sugary drinks and brightly-coloured warnings about the amount of sugar and fat in foods.

The government caved into the anti-obesity lobby and will be introducing a sugar tax. The levy will be imposed upon high-sugar drinks and charged to companies according to the volume of the sugar-sweetened drinks they produce or import.

There will be two bands - one for total sugar content above 5g per 100 millilitres and a second, higher band for the most sugary drinks with more than 8g per 100 millilitres. Analysis by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility suggests they will be levied at 18p and 24p per litre.

Examples of drinks which would currently fall under the higher rate of the sugar tax include full-strength Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Lucozade Energy and Irn-Bru, the Treasury said. The lower rate would catch drinks such as Dr Pepper, Fanta, Sprite, Schweppes Indian tonic water and alcohol-free shandy.

Such calls leave a bitter taste for a number of reasons.

First, placing a tax on sugary drinks is regressive as it will hurt the poorest hardest. At a time when many households are struggling to make ends meet, lobbying to increase the shopping bill for those on the lowest incomes is unsavoury, to say the least.

Second, academic research suggests that a tax on sugary drinks simply does not work. Studies have revealed that where a tax on sugary drinks has been introduced, the amount of sugar consumed has remained the same as people bought other products such as chocolate bars to get their sugar fix. They could even be incentivised to turn to alcoholic drinks, where pre-mixed cockatails (such as gin and tonic or whisky and cola in cans) are exempt from the tax.

Finally, it is incredibly patronising. The public is well aware of the health risks associated with a diet that is high in sugar. ‘Traffic light’ warnings on the front of cereal boxes are completely unnecessary and infantilising. It is a reasonable assumption to make that if somebody sees a box of Sugar Puffs in the cereal aisle of their local supermarket, it will not come as a huge surprise for them to learn that they contain a lot of sugar. People are already aware of which products are unhealthy, and for those who are not then they simply have to check the nutritional information on the box. Action on Sugar assume that people will only be aware that a food is unhealthy if it contains a red label and that they cannot read or perform basic calculations; we think more highly of people than that.

The government should trust people to make wise choices about what they and their families eat. Moves such as a tax on sugary drinks are regressive, patronising, and are likely to be ineffective.