Soft drink industry levy
What is it?
The soft drinks industry levy, popularly known as the sugar tax, is a flat-rate tax of 18p a litre on soft drinks with a sugar content of at least 5 grams in 100 millilitres. A higher rate of 24p a litre applies to drinks with at least 8 grams in 100 millilitres. The levy applies to alcoholic drinks with an alcohol content under 1.2 per cent (i.e., exempt from alcohol duties) but not drinks where no sugar is added. Pure fruit juices and drinks with at least 75 per cent milk are exempt. The objective of the levy was to influence people’s decisions about their diets in a way that will improve health.
What’s the problem with it?
The soft drinks industry levy is ineffectually designed, economically harmful and morally questionable.
A 2021 study found that while household weekly consumption of sugar purchased from soft drinks had declined, there had been no statistically significant change in purchased volume. This suggests that some may have simply switched to cheaper brands. Obesity rates have been increasing, but this has been happening while sugar consumption has been falling.
As well as the compliance costs involved with levying any tax (for both tax authorities and businesses), consumers are likely to suffer a welfare loss due to switching to inferior brands or alternative sugar sources to avoid the levy. To the extent that consumers absorb price increases, their spending power is reduced as resources are transferred to the public sector.
Perhaps more than any other ‘sin’ tax, using the tax system to influence the lifestyle choices of adults raises questions about the moral acceptability of interventions. Health authorities may offer advice and education on health issues. But where behaviour has no effect on other people, it becomes highly questionable whether it is justified for government to resort to tax as a means of enforcing its advice.
What should be done?
The levy should be scrapped immediately.
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 British Medical Journal, Changes in soft drinks purchased by British households associated with the UK soft drinks industry levy: controlled interrupted time series analysis, 10 March 2021, www.bmj.com/content/372/bmj.n254, (accessed 8 November 2022).
 TaxPayers’ Alliance, Sugar tax briefing, 2016.