Why a sugar tax won't work - Juice Daily

Why a sugar tax won’t work

There is absolutely no doubt that sugar makes us fat and sick. We should very definitely be eating much less of it. So imposing a sugar tax seems like an obvious answer. But the evidence says a tax is unlikely to change anything except the bank balance of the people least able to afford it. Fortunately, there is a simple way to help us eat less sugar, and it is much more likely to work.

Last month, the UK announced a tax on soft drinks. When it’s introduced in 2018, it will increase the cost of a standard soft drink by about 50 cents a litre. It only targets drinks and then only those with sugar added to water (such as soft drinks, sports drinks and vitamin waters). Milk based drinks and pure fruit juices are exempt. Even so it is expected to rake in about a billion dollars a year. That money will be spent on school sport.

The logic is clear and simple. Added sugar is addictive, harmful to our health and completely unnecessary. It is therefore just like ciggies and booze. Banning harmful addictive substances doesn’t work, it just drives them underground, so the answer is to tax them. That will increase the cost and deter consumption and raise money to deal with the harm.

Taxation has worked brilliantly with tobacco. We know that for every 10% increase in the price of cigarettes, we can expect a 4% decrease in consumption (in high income countries and as part of a general package of actions against smoking). We also know that similar maths is at work when it comes to soft drink. Mexico implemented a 10% ‘soda Tax’ in January 2014 and by the end of that year, consumption of sugar water had decreased by 6%.

Convincing people not to smoke results in a measurable health outcome. Smoking is a primary cause of lung cancer and heart disease. And rates of both diseases have plummeted since the introduction of tobacco taxes.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for sugar. Sugar is both the addictive substance, and the substance causing the damage. Taxing one source of sugar will certainly reduce consumption from that source but detailed studies have been so far unable to detect a significant health benefit. This is likely to be because people simply find a cheaper source of sugar. Or, as the author of one recent study put it people just “find alternate ways to offset the added cost of the tax, by buying in bulk or choosing generic brands.” I would add, or, get their sugar hit from fruit juice, iced tea, flavoured coffee and flavoured milk.

Because of this many campaigners in the UK say the tax doesn’t go far enough. They want it extended to all drinks and some even want breakfast cereals and biscuits in the mix too. That sounds logical but it is unlikely to make the slightest bit of difference.

Since 1 July 2000 Australia has had one of the broadest based sugar taxes ever implemented and in the 16 years we’ve had it most of the diseases caused by sugar have doubled in incidence. It’s the good old GST.

It applies to all processed foods (the source of almost all the added sugar in our diet) but does not apply to:

  • meat
  • fruit, vegetables, fish and soup
  • bread and bread rolls without a sweet coating or filling
  • unflavoured milk, cream, cheese and eggs
  • tea and coffee (unless ready-to-drink)
  • bottled drinking water
  • baby food and infant formula
  • cooking ingredients, such as flour, sugar, pre-mixes and cake mixes
  • fats and oils for cooking
  • spreads for bread (such as honey, jam and peanut butter)
  • spices, sauces and condiments
  • fruit or vegetable juice (of at least 90% by volume of juice of fruit or vegetables)
  • breakfast cereals

In other words, the GST taxes most sources of added sugar and exempts most sources of real food. And yet, it has not deterred us from eating sugar or made us healthier. When everything in a food category contains sugar, taxing sugar gives the consumer no choice but to pay more tax (and buy sugar anyway).

Luckily there is a simple way for governments to do something about sugar consumption. Simply require our supermarkets to tell us the lowest sugar choice in any food category with shelf labels.


Sugar is not like cigarettes. You can’t accidentally shove a ciggy in your mouth and light it. But you can accidentally consume 40 teaspoons of sugar a day without touching a can of coke.

Shelf labels allow customers to vote with their wallet by buying the product that has the least sugar. Companies who want part of that action will ‘reformulate’ quickly and the market driven race to the bottom should persistently drive down the sugar content of the food supply.

We don’t need more tax, we need a way for the consumer to reward companies that make foods with less added sugar. Shelf labels are simple, direct, cheap and likely to produce material long term change in our food supply and our health.

David Gillespie

About the person who wrote this

David Gillespie

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David Gillespie's first book, Sweet Poison, published in 2008 is widely credited with starting the current Australian wave of anti-sugar sentiment. His most recent book, Toxic Oil, takes the arguments in Sweet Poison and extends them to the widespread use of seed oils in the modern diet.

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