Is Johnson right to cut back on sugar tax?

The issue

As part of the Conservative leader election, Boris Johnson has committed to launching a review into the effectiveness of “sin stealth taxes” which are broadly financial disincentives to buy products that are bad for your health. Although the term “sin tax” usually refers to levies on alcohol and cigarettes, Johnson’s team said that in this case he was talking about food and milkshakes in particular.

“The recent proposal for a tax on milkshakes seems to me to clobber those who can least afford it,” Johnson has said. “If we want people to lose weight and live healthier lifestyles we should encourage people to walk, cycle and do more exercise.”

Although Johnson is clearly aiming to win approval from the nation’s milkshake lovers, there is a deeper question here of whether these kinds of taxes do actually make people healthier or whether they just cost them money.

Are sin taxes successful?

The most recent example of “sin tax” dates back to April 2018, when a sugar tax on soft drinks came into force in the UK. Companies must pay a rate of 24p per litre of drink if a drink contains eight grams of sugar per 100 millilitres and 18p per litre if it contains between five and eight grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. The tax is an attempt to tackle the high rates of obesity.

Evidence shows these types of taxes are successful. “If the purpose of Johnson’s review is to assess whether taxes are effective, then it’s going to be a waste of time and public money, because we know very well that these taxes are effective,” says Franco Sassi, a professor at Imperial College Business School. “At the moment, they’re probably the single most important policy supported by evidence that public health agents across the world are promoting.”

Johnson’s suggestion that the evidence surrounding this reduction in obesity is “ambiguous” doesn’t hold up. Scientists cannot realistically assess a reduction in obesity directly caused by these kinds of taxes, but they can assess if there is a significant reduction in consumption of products that we know are closely associated with obesity. The evidence here is clear, says Sassi. In Mexico, for instance, a soft drinks tax was introduced in 2014 and sales of taxed drinks had fallen by 12 per cent by December of that year. This meant that the average person had cut their yearly consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks by over four litres. Also a review of sugar taxes around the world, published in June 2019, said on average the purchase of sugary drinks dropped by 10 per cent when laws were introduced. The study looked at the impact in four US cities, Spain, Chile, France and Mexico.

Final comment

Johnson’s reaction is also being reported on as an indication that he is going to resist “nanny state” initiatives – an overprotective, paternalistic government that ‘nannies’ us into living healthylives. (The term was first used in 1965, by Conservative MP Iain Macleod.)

John Coggon, a law professor at the University of Bristol, questioned the validity of the term in a 2009 study. “There is no sound reason to suggest that it would be nannying to prevent people from seeing [sugary food] adverts but not nannying to promote exercise,” Coggon wrote. “The material difference between the two seems in reality to relate to the former representing an interference with commercial freedoms.”

As for ‘clobbering the poor’ there is strong scientific data to suggest that they are more at risk of obesity than their wealthier counterparts. Arguably if the ‘tax stick’ prevents them from having too many milkshakes then they will be in better health to give them a better chance of increasing their financial position. Funnily enough this sounds a bit like a Boris Johnson argument…..!




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