Should Sugar Be Taxed Like Tobacco and Alcohol?


by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
Sugar Tax

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Have you heard the news?

Harvard researchers reported in an abstract, presented at an American Heart Association scientific conference, that they have linked 180,000 obesity-related deaths worldwide to sugary drinks.

Heart disease, cancer and diabetes for the first time in human history pose a greater health burden worldwide than infectious disease.

Should sugar then be taxed?

Health scientists contend that there has been a massive rise in diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes since we began eating more sugar contained in processed food. And since excessive sugar consumption shows similar effects as alcohol and tobacco, it is arguable that sugar should be controlled and taxed just the same.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation announced that the recommended level of sugar in people’s diet should be reduced fiercely.

What does this mean?

With the current recommended figure of 10 per cent of total intake from “free sugars” – mainly refined and fruit sugars – this ought to be cut in half, to 5 per cent.

Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, highlighted the addictive nature of sugar and commissioned ongoing research. Because of the addictive quality, she believes that the public needs to have a “big education” on how “sugar packed” juices, fizzy drinks and processed foods truly are.

So if this is all true – that sugar is addictive and produces risk factors for disease – should it be under the control of government through regulations?

Something similar happened in Denmark. In 2011 Denmark imposed a fat tax on meat, dairy products, and cooking oil. This move was introduced to limit the country’s intake of fatty foods. Less than a year and a half later that tax was abolished. Besides creating burdens and uncertainty it was questionable whether it ever did work according to its intention, to improve public health.

Do we need a Sugar Police?

Unfortunately, sugar is like cheap alcohol – it’s available everywhere. Clearly it’s in those Crunchies, Kit Kats, and Smarties, but it’s also hidden in pies, canned beans, crisps, salami, and even gravy too! Added sugars make food more palatable and manufacturers have long since realised that this boosts sales.

Since 1990, consumption of sugar in Britain has increased by 31 per cent – now we eat 1.25 lbs (.57 kilos) per person a week! Is sugar intake then actually a form of addiction, especially given the point that many people cannot stop eating it once they start?

Paul van der Velpen, head of Amsterdam’s health service, described sugar as “the most dangerous drug of the times”, causing a rapid high followed by increased cravings.

Shockingly, researchers at the University of Bordeaux discovered that sugar has a bigger impact than hard drugs in the brain: their experiments showed that refined sugar can be 4 times more addictive than cocaine.

Sure, we don’t necessarily buy sugar like those 1 kg bags you see. It’s that “invisible sugar” and the inconspicuous ways the food industry sneaks it into things that sinks our ships and drives us deeper into addiction.

It is so bad, that we have dedicated a full module on food addiction in our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Practitioner Professional Diploma course.

So back to the sugar tax.

Just what would the sugar tax do?

The measures around this tax would include limiting the availability of ultra-processed foods and sweetened soft drinks, and banning “junk food sports sponsorships”.

When you look at the sugar strewn industry and the way it has affected our obesity, heart disease and diabetes rates, it seems that in the end we’ll have to pay for it – either in health or taxes. So what is it going to be?

Robert H. Lustig, an American pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California San Francisco, believes it should be controlled like alcohol and tobacco.

Why?

Lustig’s specialty is childhood obesity and he reminds us of the struggle with the tobacco industry, where it was and what it’s come to. As he says:

We made it expensive, harder to buy, and harder to advertise. We kept it away from children. We made it taboo.

Can we really do this with sugar?

Especially when we’re talking about Big Food and Big Sugar. The food industry does not want to change. This is big money.

The obesity expert Philip James puts it this way: “The sugar industry has learnt the tricks of the tobacco industry. Confuse the public. Produce experts who disagree. Try to dilute the message.”

Ouch.

What do you think?

There is evidence that suggests taxing say soft drinks won’t curb obesity. Then there’s the other side who argue that regulation is the only way to constrain Big Food. Some doctors in the UK suggest sugar is a greater threat to public health than smoking.

So, what’s the real answer? Should sugar be taxed?

Let’s vote:

Let's vote: Should sugar be taxed?

 

Update:

A tax on sugary drinks was introduced in the UK in March 2016:

Sugar Tax The Health Sciences Academy v2

Leave a comment below, add your voice to the conversation!


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43 Comments

  • graham tanker

    Reply Reply July 24, 2014

    taxing sugar will only make the ‘big’ industries work out other ways of getting their product through.An educated philosophy from childhood is what is needed,and a complete new outlook on how we live.not enough time/money is given by government to address these problems as they think it is a non-vote issue!(it doesn’t help them get votes,as who wants to be told to change,or be taxed on anything),but until we totally revamp our whole cultural way of life and incorporate a healthier and cost effective (for everyone,especially low earners!)thenthe general publics’ habits will not change,and introducing a tax will only put a greater stain on the low income earners,who tend to be the ones who buy ‘junk’ foods at any price…Statistics in usa have identified and proven that fact.
    Laws to prohibit high sugar contents in any food/drink product will help,but without public awareness nothing will change,and even then it will take years of a cultural overhaul.

    • Alex

      Reply Reply July 24, 2014

      Graham, thanks for commenting. Indeed, there’ll be quite a lot of resistance from food manufacturers to cap sugar content. In the meantime, as you say, all we have is education :-)

    • Steve

      Reply Reply November 14, 2014

      Yes Graham, about 6 years I estimate!

    • Sarah

      Reply Reply August 4, 2016

      I think that the “sugar” companies should be taxed, not the consumer.

  • Tahira Bartolo

    Reply Reply July 24, 2014

    Another brilliant article. Thanks Alex

    • Alex

      Reply Reply July 24, 2014

      Tahira, thanks. Hope to hear more from you!

  • susan hart

    Reply Reply July 24, 2014

    I agree with Graham, that’s its about education. It would also help if sugar on labels was also displayed in teaspoons. do you really know what 22g of sugar looks like when you eat a bar of chocolate? But when you see it as just over 5 teaspoons that might make someone think again; especially a parent buying a treat for their child

    But surely manufactures should be working with the Government to try and reduce the amount of sugar in products. Schools etc also need to offer water as the drink of choice, parents need to be educated about the damage sugar can do to young teeth as well as increasing someones risk of developing diabetes and obesity

    But whilst these massive share driven organisation have the big budgets to develop huge advertising campaigns for sweets, energy drinks, processed foods etc I don’t think things will change all that quickly do you?!

    • Alex

      Reply Reply July 24, 2014

      Susan – great ideas, especially making water the drink of choice at schools.

      • Lori

        Reply Reply August 13, 2015

        I agree with the water idea, however the plastic bottles are another issue. Why not have fast food chains that have water as the regular drink associated with their meals and not sugary drinks like soda and juices!!!

  • EN

    Reply Reply July 24, 2014

    Taxing sugar won’t help as those who are the most addicted to it are also less price sensitive and will pay the higher post-tax prices. This will also hit the poorer families the hardest (who tend to consume more sugary and processed foods).

    A better path path is education, limiting access to sugar and social/cultural pressure (such as the change we observed with tobacco).

    Another alternative is ‘carrot’ rather than ‘stick’ – e.g. subsidising vegetables, healthy and raw ingredients, encouraging simple affordable healthy cooking and home/school vegetable gardening, encouraging small scale enterprise – espeially amongst those communities affected the most.

    You are right in focusing on children as people’s eating habits start early. Most parents want only the best for their children and that’s where we have an opportunity for encouraging healthy eating. Basic home cooked food tends to be not only healthier, but also cheaper than processed and sugary foods, though some are trapped in their habits or lack of cooking/nutrition knowledge.

  • Libby

    Reply Reply July 24, 2014

    Great stuff here. I love all the research put in behind this article.

    I voted “no” to the tax even though I agree wholeheartedly that there is a MAJOR problem with Big Food/ Big Sugar and how we as a people have gotten out of hand. I believe it is all about education. And tons of it.

    I think people want to stop (some, not all) and they have become so addicted that they don’t know how to stop. There’s too much overwhelm in what to do first, how it’s affecting them, what small steps to take, what to be aware of. If we can break it down for them an have people make small improvements over time I think there could be a substantial shift over time. Taxing will just get people pissed off.

    I agree with Graham and Susan…nice blog Susan, by the way.

    • Dr Michael

      Reply Reply July 24, 2014

      Look, at the end of the day the only real and coherent answer is education. We see the health warnings on various packaging and this assist slightly in education; until of course it blends in with the remaining rhetoric on the packaging.

      We have Parliament and Committees, educate them in terms of actual cost to the Health Service and then maybe they will listen (who knows).

      Frankly education through packaging (labelling) of the real dangers with the correct colour labelling co-ordination would assist.

      In essence taxing would do little as the odd pence on a packet of consumables will do nothing to curb the desire for sugar. Perhaps we should put pressure on our MP’s to nudge this forward.

      Michael

      • Alex

        Reply Reply July 24, 2014

        Dr Michael, exactly, healthcare savings can be a huge incentive for policy makers. You may want to check out “Action on Sugar”, a group of doctors/experts who’re working to reach a consensus with the food industry and Government to cap sugar content in processed foods

    • Alex

      Reply Reply July 24, 2014

      Libby, indeed, although we can’t change the food industry overnight, we can change our actions. It takes some training and wise planning, as you say, probably starting with our shopping basket: https://thehealthsciencesacademy.org/health-tips/fighting-supermarket-junk-food/

      • Dr. Michael

        Reply Reply July 26, 2014

        Hi, Alex thanks for the link and lots of interesting names.

  • Maurice Castelijn

    Reply Reply July 24, 2014

    Great discussion here!

    Just came across this in my bookmarks and thought I’d share:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-28037415

    See the graph on daily added sugar intake by age. Shocking (and it’s old data so it’s bound to be even higher now)

  • Tahira Bartolo

    Reply Reply July 24, 2014

    What a great discussion!

    I’m afraid I will have to be a little controversial here and say that I genuinely do not believe that a lack of education is the root cause of this particular problem, nor that more education will help resolve it! More transparency with packaging will definately help.

    Let us all be honest and ask how many people are genuinely not aware of the fact that sugar is bad for us and that in particular, young children should not be exposed to high levels to it? I would say that most people (unless they’ve been living on another planet) know that it’s not good for you. If that is the case, why do we still have this problem?

    I have personally helped a number of people in this area through my practice and in my experience, the biggest hurdle to overcome is the motivation to change! People have the information and knowledge, but we live in an era of convenience and it is much easier to hand your children a bag of smarties and sit them infront of netflix, than it is to think of something more creative to do with them, especially over the dreaded 6 weeks holidays! While they are distracted and munching away infront of the TV, at least they are not causing trouble (I’ve seen and heard this first hand pleanty of times).

    This bad relationship with food starts from an incredibly young age for the children. We all know how addictive sugar is and it habitually becomes a source of dependency in the form of a reward when you’re celebrating, a treat when you’re feeling down etc etc. These unhealthy relationships with particular food groups are then passed down generations and becomes a very difficult and stubborn cycle to break.

    I have found that tackling the emotional and psychological side of this relationship with sugar is key when treating one-to-one. On a larger scale, (much as I disagree with this level of control) I can unfortunately see that hitting consumers in the pocket is the only way to go as my experience has shown that it is not a lack of education, but a desire for convenience and lack of motivation to change that is the biggest obstacle to overcome.

    • Sam Tzilser

      Reply Reply July 25, 2014

      Interesting conversation! I personally think that there are two main types of populations: 1) those who don’t know, can’t really understand or are completely oblivious to the negative health effects of refined sugar in packaged foods, so they need the right information and education to overcome this point of ignorance and I think the majority of the population falls into this group – and 2) those who know and understand at least a couple of things about sugar but are stuck with the “convenience” factor as Tahira says and in this group I’d put those who know about these issues but still buy packaged foods because they are cheap, convenient, they pick us up or pick our children up and since sugary foods are everywhere stopping yourself from buying them or from eating them is like a full time job if you’re exposed to that environment and temptation 24/7. So for this second group, the next step is to receive the right training, coaching and support needed to change their behaviours around food.

      But I voted YES because taxing sugar will make it taboo in our heads as Dr Lustig says. Every day new factories open or new machinery is bought and millions are spent on advertising packaged stuff. It is intoxicating the majority of us. Anything that comes from a factory keeps getting cheaper and cheaper, which makes vegetables seem expensive.

      Great article Alex and thank you for allowing us to share our views and to join forces to tackle this in different ways.

      • Alex

        Reply Reply July 28, 2014

        Sam, interesting rationale for your YES vote!

    • Alex

      Reply Reply July 28, 2014

      Tahira, well done for bringing up such a great point into the equation. The world needs more coaches like you :-)

    • Sarah Eddie

      Reply Reply July 28, 2014

      Obesity is a health problem affecting rich and poor, educated and uneducated, Westernised and non-Westernised societies.

      It’s increasingly becoming a regulatory issue so my vote is yes, we need a sugar tax, sugar policy and capping amounts in food products.

      Thanks a lot for helping us be better informed ..!!

  • Mildred Vazquez

    Reply Reply September 30, 2014

    I truly believe that a grassroots movements creating a revolution against this sugar addiction is needed. This movement can happen through creative education of children and their families where the learning process includes touching, smelling and experiencing what good eating is. That the class rooms include knowledge within the curriculum of other subjects like math and science and social studies about foods in a creative and synergistic manner. Again funding would be needed for this. A tax maybe the funding source for these efforts.

  • Mildred Vazquez

    Reply Reply September 30, 2014

    I truly believe that change can come from a grassroots lead revolution. This revolution can be started by teaching children from a very young age and their families in a creative process about eating and food. This education would involve many models, farming in the schools, curriculums in school that include concepts of food and impacts on the body and pocket book in subjects of math, science, social studies. These activities need to be synergistic. But, these changes/activities need money to happen. A tax would be a funding source for this. I am for it as long as there is a well developed plan on how the revenue generated is going to be used to move the country to a healthy approach to eating.

  • Dr W.

    Reply Reply January 14, 2015

    Strange how calories (Kcal, cal, Kjoules…!) are still frowned upon and labels drowned in percentages, random portion size and unclear weight, with no labelling of fresh ingredients for comparison. What if people bought less to actually eat less? The whole process about sugar reminds me of the salt issue in the US ten years or so ago – it’s the illusion of agency. In Boston, I overheard more than once very large people commenting that they didn’t want soy sauce in their dish or salt in their chips because they were being healthy. Salt was easily downplayed in these people’s lives, manufacturers upped the fat and decreased sodium, new ‘health ranges’ appeared in the snack ailses. No thinking required. I feel sugar is going exactly the same way, especially with the added backlash against fruits and juices. What will stack our supermarkets’ shelves in 2 years? Sugar and salt are only part of a whole. In Japan, white sugar and mirin are liberately used into everyday home cooked meals, up to 1 Tbsp per person and dish. Almost all the rice, eaten 3 times a day, is white, and every course contains either miso, salt or soy sauce – yet they’re hardly the world’s largest nation!

  • Oshun Afeez

    Reply Reply January 15, 2015

    the best thing would be educating the entire members of the public of the potential harm of sugar intake especially in excessive amounts.

  • Deanna McCormack

    Reply Reply January 24, 2015

    A sugar tax should be imposed with an education clause! Check this out. If a person were to take a course such as this one, pass the test, and still wish to poison theirselves and their children. Then the tax is cut by 50%, but they have to produce the evidence that they know the risk and don’t give a %$*!

    So they will be judged by the person selling the food at a discount. Sorry, there is a price on it, if you prefer no shame, then pay full price, because our tax dollars are supporting your illness, and that which you bring upon the next generation.

    More importantly, I believe the companies producing these atrocious products (and I realize that is 99.9% of all processed foods) should also be taxed, and then perhaps they would improve their manufacturing processes to at least make it obvious that you are purchasing crap when you are purchasing crap! Do you know that 99% of chicken stock contains added sugar??? That is a pretty profound example of unnecessary poisoning by our food manufacturers, shame on them!

  • Katherine

    Reply Reply March 18, 2015

    I used to consume huge amounts of sugar, tea and coffee I would always have at least 2 tsp and at work could have 7 cups a day. And eat bags of sweets, It didn’t make me overweight as been a fairly active person and not a junk food fan. However becoming a mum I wanted to lead by example and get my son into healthy eating habits early. During this time I was shocked to find how much baby food is laced with sugar ! Rusks which are sold as a first food and for teething are mostly sugar ! Disgusting ! It’s harder to shop for baby food which isn’t junk in disguise with totally misleading labels. I’m not sure if education is the key as some people seem to believe if it’s sold for kids it can’t be that bad. I do allow him now he’s a active toddler to have some treats but after watching “junk food kids” some parents will always go for the easy option packets of addictive crap and not care about what it’s doing to there kids. Food labels should carry warnings like tobacco, warning of high sugar, trans fat, salt content but food manufacturers would never allow it. Needless to say I cook for my family from scratch and only have a few treats in the house at any one time.

  • Ammie

    Reply Reply April 15, 2015

    I am not for taxing sugar. Why should it be taxed? Sugar, alcohol, and tobacco are three totally different products, with three totally different properties for the human body. I’m not convinced just by reading the researched information. I understand why someone would, but I’m not sold on it!

  • Rosi

    Reply Reply May 2, 2015

    My answer is no. Now the industry is using corn syrup instead of sugar to lower the costs………It is worst than sugar.

  • Lea

    Reply Reply June 8, 2015

    It is not about health when you discuss taxes. It is about regulation, and attempting to guide people into your definition of how they should do something – consume a food, an activity, the way they use their vehicles, how they run their homes, how they can or cannot speak and the list grows yearly – and seriously, we have enough as it is. With taxes come laws, and within the laws there is pork, and it isn’t a left or right thing. As much as it sounds really nice to say “big corporation” this or that, it affects everyone. Heath decisions should not be forced.
    I come from a point of view/spirituality that people have their own unique journeys – and yet many people who claim to think that way will not hesitate to approve of taxes and legislation that narrowly define what people can and can not do. Less “lifestyle taxes”, period.

  • Jess

    Reply Reply July 29, 2015

    Sugar, like tobacco, leads to increased health problems and a significant strain on the health care providers. Smoking is not illegal but it is taxed (at least it is in Australia-very highly taxed) so they say, taxing will simply offset costs from those who overindulge to assist providing necessary/likely care. If people choose the products they will pay more while in good health and when they’re able, if they decrease their intake, big business (multimillion profit) will take a hit but the individuals health will be rewarded. Governments will not make known killers (tobacco) illegal while they raise revenue and while sugar would never need to be illegal, increasing the cost of a processed ‘treat’ to help balance the future cost of care or even to offset the price of nutritious foods is the fairest way to go! I am no doubt a sugar addict myself but I totally agree that I should have to pay more for unhealthy food! Stop making unhealthy food ridiculously cheap and help healthy options the affordable option and the individuals and health care system will benefit.

  • annabel

    Reply Reply July 30, 2015

    tax sugar and use the money to subsidise vegetables. Special fruit and veg boxes at really low prices maybe with recipe suggestions – at checkouts or a very prominent place in store. AND a very big tax on unhealthy cheap “rubbish” meals – especially those aimed at children.

  • Nick Brennan

    Reply Reply July 30, 2015

    I used to be a drinker and smoker, the amount of taxation on these products never stopped me consuming these them even when I could not afford to do so. Taxing sugary drinks will effect the poorer people of society more and do nothing to reduce the effects of sugar consumption. what we need is better labelling, more information and legislation to limit the amount of sugar in food. I recently picked up some frozen burgers that said ingredients where beef, salt and pepper. Sounds good. then on the back of the pack I find ingredients in very small writing that included sugar. yet apparently this type of labelling ( a headline on the front and the truth on the back) is totally legal. We already have the most complex tax system in the world in the UK we do not need more taxation that eats away at our liberty.

  • Ani

    Reply Reply July 31, 2015

    If sugar is taxed then the artificial sweeteners which are just as unhealthy will become the norm. Will raw honey (not shop bought sugar honey) also be taxed? Will fruit be taxed?

    It is the same with fats. There are margarine and veg oils which are unhealthy fats but also there are good fats.

    People who eat too much sugary/carby stuff need to have their brain retrained. We learn at a young age that sugary fatty stuff is a treat and we grow to love it more and more when we grow up and have a bad day and need to treat ourselves once, twice a week then a day. EFT is a simple technique that everyone can do and should be available at the doctors surgery instead of big pharma meds that just put a plaster on the issues. Rant over

  • Iljoesja

    Reply Reply August 1, 2015

    Yes increase taxes on all rubbish food as long as these monies will be used for education and campaigns. Why not, as done with tobacco products, cigarettes cigars and tobacco, for manufacturers to make it compulsory to put health warning labels on all these products?! I also believe that these bad artificial sweetners should not be allowed, there are many other ways to sweeten cakes biscuits chocolate etc.

  • KayLeen

    Reply Reply August 13, 2015

    I think we have enough regulation and legislation. The better way to encourage these goals is education.

  • Debbie Osborne

    Reply Reply December 22, 2015

    No as its the consumer that suffers both in the pocket and taxing something does not reduce the consumption in a big enough way. Its a money making scam. Sugar is 8 time more additive than cocaine.. coco cola had cocaine in its original recipe to make it additive… think that they could get away with that now as its a banned substance.. the manufacturers should be banned from adding unnecessary amounts of sugar and sweeteners whih should be banned anyway,that are not necessary in the original recipe but are only added for the additive effect. Sugar is the legal cocaine of the food industry..
    Money form taxes are never put to good use, not enough of the tax money raised will ever be spent on what they say it will be… bit like the charities…some spend less than 1% of what they raise on the cause they raise the money for…

  • Helen

    Reply Reply February 11, 2016

    Manufacturers would start using even more artificial sweeteners and preservatives in the absence of sugar – These are mostly unhealthy alternatives, and because the general population has acquired such a desire for sweet things, it will be a difficult to encourage them to wean themselves off the taste. Manufacturers should gradually try using less and see how the public reacts. It is an easy thing to say but difficult to implement where there are so many manufacturers and products available.

  • Steven

    Reply Reply March 10, 2016

    I do not believe taxing sugar would be a valid solution to curing the ills that sugar consumption causes on the health of our nation. While it sounds good at face value I believe it would be better as consumers, not to purchase those products we know are loaded with sugar and other GMO processed foods. There are many great alternatives to supermarket shopping today and grow in popularity daily.

    I also think that attempting to impose a tax could be extremely expensive undertaking and that cost better spent on further education and maybe investing in more grass root co-ops etc. to make whole and organic foods more readily available and cost effective for all. As with all things that challenge us in life it always comes down to the individual choice. When you can reach more the heart of people,than the mind alone, is where major positive change takes place for all.

  • Mridula

    Reply Reply September 24, 2016

    I do not believe it is helpful. People should learn how to eat healthy.

  • Lauren

    Reply Reply September 28, 2016

    Thats great news. What would be an even greater reward for Schools is to also educate Children on healthy cooking, the benefits of a healthy lifestyle/ diet and the importance it serves their bodies. Just like Jamie Olivers TED Talk. Most school have more than enough sporting activities to keep them active but what about opening their eyes to their diet and what certain foods really do to our bodies and future.

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