Fiscal fizz is less sweet

One year on, Ben Reynolds explores the impact of the high-profile “sugar tax”, and where it might go in future.

I remember the moment, when two years into running a campaign calling for a children’s health fund linked to a sugary drinks tax, I got a call from our colleagues in Jamie Oliver’s team. It was budget day, spring 2016. They had just received a tip off from within government that the budget would include a Soft Drinks Industry Levy. Cue popping of (non-sweetened) bubbly.

It felt very weird celebrating something that on one hand was essentially a tax, but was on the other, one of the most concrete pieces of legislation we have managed to secure, before or since, to reduce the food system’s impact in the UK – in this case on our health. And I won’t labour the case, already well made on the need, particularly amongst children, to reduce consumption of sugary drinks. This is well documented by Sugar Smart, the Obesity Health Alliance, and the government’s own body Public Health England (PHE) amongst others.

The subsequent Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) has, as fiscal measures go, proved relatively popular, clocking 69% public support in an Ipsos MORI poll a few months before adoption. Much of the money due to be raised was promised to initiatives to improve children’s health, as we had campaigned for having piloted a similar fund working with over 100 restaurants, which had raised over quarter of a million pounds and led to an 11% drop in sugary drinks sales.

Much has been made of the rush to reformulate by many soft drinks manufacturers ahead of the SDIL’s introduction a year ago, and the impact this would have on children’s health. The evaluation on the first year of the Levy is due shortly, and will no doubt shed light on whether the price increases, where evident, have led to a shift in sales. There are now discussions about what else could fall within the scope of the levy, such as milky drinks with added sugar, which will raise its head when PHE release their progress report in the coming months on (largely voluntary) sugar reformulation across industry. This before we consider those calls to impose some kind of fiscal measure or tax on meat and dairy, confectionary or cereals, all of which need more evidence, modelling and would be harder to argue for, some with justification. But within a movement working for a better food and farming system, the seriousness with which these policies are being considered is already a world away from the reception to our first report which explored some of these in 2013.

However the thing that has been most overlooked in the coverage of this issue in the past few years, is the question of what happens to the money raised. A big strength of the argument for the SDIL, particularly with the public, was that the money raised should go to interventions that would help children’s health. Yet we have just had the closest thing to a confirmation – announced very quietly – that this hypothecation is not to continue beyond the first year of implementation.

In response to a Parliamentary question on funding previously received from the SDIL, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for State for Children and Families, Nadhim Zahawi MP announced, “There are no plans for the Healthy Pupils Capital Fund to continue beyond 2018-19.”

Quite rightly this has been rebutted by groups like the Local Government Association, who have been calling for the £250 million raised to go in future years to local councils’ public health budgets towards the same aims. This could pay for thousands of new school kitchens to enable them to cook using fresh ingredients. And still have enough for thousands of new dining spaces, the lack of which means children’s lunchtimes are squeezed so short they don’t have sufficient time to eat, or have to go outside of school often eating unhealthier food. It could pay for over half a million more children in poverty to have free school meals (about £400 a year per child) and still have enough left over to pay for lots of other initiatives or infrastructure. Just 10% of this money could pay for over 50 new drinking fountains in every local authority across the UK, improving easy access to tap water on the go for children (and everyone else for that matter), as well as cutting plastic bottle waste.

This is not small fry, particularly in the wake of years of cuts to the public sector, and the arguments should be over what are the most effective ways for that £250 million to make a difference to children’s health, based on the evidence of impact. Instead we’re having to argue over whether the money is there at all. At a time when the government has committed to halving child obesity by 2030, it is cutting funding to tackle it.

Ben Reynolds

Ben Reynolds is Deputy CEO of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming, where he has worked since 2004. During this time he has helped establish the Sustainable Food …

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