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A Sugar Tax? Sweet, Brah…

A Sugar Tax? Taxing sugar? I haven’t seen people this animated about Sugar since the first series of the Apprentice!

For some reason a sugar tax seems to get people in a real state of anger. Is it because it’s a hyper-important political issue? Perhaps. I think it’s probably more because a sugar tax affects us all, such is our love affair with the stuff. I’ve found the coverage and the issue of sugar tax particularly interesting given my career as a personal trainer.

This may be the spikiest piece I’ve ever written in over 400 articles on this blog. Let’s see!

I’ll preface this article about my views on a sugar tax with a few points…

  1. I’m a paid-up member of the chocolate and cake fan club. It’s part of the reason I have to train so much. It also puts me right in the firing line of a sugar tax.
  2. I have two young children, so I spend a lot of time around the very people this is trying to help protect.
  3. I’ve worked with the NHS on health interventions and helped run weight loss and GP referral groups. I’ve seen first-hand what obesity is, what it does and the real impact it has.
  4. My experience with obesity goes beyond watching TV programmes about men being looked after by underpaid carers. I’ve met these people, I’ve worked with them and most importantly, gotten to know them as human beings, not zoo objects for production companies to make cheap TV programmes about.

Collectively, this means I’m not just a bloke with a chip on his shoulder and a platform to shout from. I know this subject. This is my jungle.

So, sugar tax. What’s the score?

As you may have heard, the issue of a sugar tax has been raised again with Jamie Oliver presenting his proposal for a 10-20% tax on sugar to the Health Select Committee last week.

Cue the offended masses. Don’t you dare interfere to try and make us healthier…

sugar tax

As the face of it, Jamie Oliver has taken most of the stick for the sugar tax campaign. He’s had the usual ‘he’s only in it for the money/publicity’ crap thrown his way. Puh-lease. Try a more original argument.

The guy is worth £240 million according to the Sunday Times Rich list, so he’s hardly short of money. With millions of cook books sold, hundreds of TV shows doing the rounds, millions of social media followers, a magazine range, a huge website and a restaurant chain, I think he’s probably doing alright for publicity too.

Maybe, just maybe, he actually gives a damn about the declining health of the nation and the ticking time bomb that is childhood obesity?

One particularly crappy article in the Telegraph seemed to take umbrage with the fact that it was a ‘celebrity’ fronting the movement.

So? Is the message the right one?

Frankly I couldn’t give a toss if Kermit the Frog fronted the campaign if it’s one that makes sense….

sugar tax

Let’s get this straight – a wide-spread, comprehensive sugar tax is unlikely to be introduced thanks to a government-imposed tax lock which is designed to prevent a rising cost of living. As a UK tax-payer, yippee! As someone who is trying to help fight obesity, boooo!

*UPDATE – as of the budget 2016, George Osborne has introduced a tax on sugary drinks. I still stand by the above though – this isn’t a comprehensive sugar tax. It’s taxing a segment of the food and drinks industry.*

Here’s my thinking though; a sugar tax wouldn’t raise cost of living if proceeds were used to subsidise vegetables or gym memberships. Take with one hand, give back with the other. Think of it less as a tax and more as a healthy-living incentive.

I don’t believe in a sugar tax being a punishment, more an incentive to make healthier choices. Imagine £20 per week coming off your food shopping bill, or £10 per month coming off your gym membership – wouldn’t seem so bad then would it?

I’m not sure how you would implement this tax – whether it would be via a rise on sugar VAT, charging the food companies a special tax or simply whacking an extra 10% on all sugary foods. That’s way out of my scope of practice, so is a discussion for people far brighter than I to have.

For and Against a Sugar Tax

I’ve researched around this sugar tax issue a lot. I’ve listened to the debates and I’ve read articles on both sides of the argument. I’m doing my best to remain impartial, but I keep coming back to the same conclusion – with all of the opinion pieces in the left and right leaning newspapers, the real issue isn’t being discussed.

What’s the real issue? I’m glad you asked…

We have a rising obesity and co-morbidity problem and not much is being done about it.

I’ve heard the arguments from the ‘no’ side…

“A sugar tax would only affect the poorest in society”

Yes, but so does any tax imposed at the point of sale. It’s funny you don’t hear the same arguments when duty on alcohol or tobacco is raised, isn’t it?

Besides, properly-implemented, a sugar tax would help the poorest in society because it would make healthier options significantly cheaper.

“It’s a punishment for those who eat sugar in moderation and aren’t fat or costing the NHS money”

True, but I can have a drink without fighting a police officer and asking the NHS to replace my liver for free. I still have to pay the same rate of duty on my booze. It’s the way society and taxation works, amigo. Get used to it.

“Tobacco and alcohol taxes are proof that it doesn’t work”

Define when it ‘works’. If the goal of raising a tax on something is to reduce it’s consumption, then it works well. Tobacco use has been declining dramatically over the decades – when records began in 1974, 45% of the UK adult population smoked. It’s now 18.7% according to the latest figures.

Would a sugar tax be intended to stop people eating sugar completely? No, absolutely not. But, if it reduces sugar intake and helps fuel a rise in vegetable consumption and exercise participation then it’s a good thing.

“It’s already more expensive to eat healthy foods – this will just make it worse”

WRONG! Healthy food isn’t more expensive than unhealthy food – quite the opposite.

It’s a lazy argument, one that is used by people who haven’t taken the time to do the research. I have done the research – I’ve written about it on this site, I’ve been involved with nutrition projects where we’ve had to look in detail at food pricing and finally, I’ve shopped for myself for 15 years.

So spare me the ‘it’s too expensive’ rhetoric. It isn’t.

The confusion occurs when people take out-of-season, imported fruit and vegetables and compare them to the cheapest wouldn’t-feed-it-to-your-dog shit in a box from the most budget of supermarkets.

Take in-season, UK-produced meat, fruit and vegetables and use those as your basis for comparison and you’ll be surprised at how cheap food really is.

If you take the most expensive from one category and compare it to the cheapest in another, of course you’re going to think it’s more expensive to eat well. That’s not a real-world example though.

The truth is, no matter which way you slice it, you can feed a family healthy food for a fraction of the price it costs to feed them junk food. Cost per gram, cost per portion – it holds true even when you factor in RPI fluctuations over the years.

Maybe if you were to eat sea bass or a fillet steak every day you could argue healthy food is more expensive, but I could just as easily counteract that claim by saying in Waitrose a microwave meal costs £7, or far more than a portion of most home-cooked dishes.

For example, if you cooked a large casserole for the family, you could get away with…

  • 400g of braising steak (£3.20)
  • A large onion (approx 20p)
  • Garlic clove (approx 10p)
  • Thyme stalks (approx 10p)
  • 3 carrots (approx 20p)
  • A whole broccoli (approx 50p)
  • 2 parsnips (approx 50p)
  • 2 Stock cubes (approx 20p)
  • 2 Large Sweet potatoes (approx £1.20)
  • 500ml of water (almost free)

This meal would cost £6.20 and feed a family of 4, costing £1.55 per portion.

You won’t get many horse-meat burgers for that price, I can assure you. I doubt you would get much in McDonalds for that either.

My impression is that the barrier to eating well isn’t really cost; it’s a lack of effort when it comes to cooking.

In an age of mod cons, everything is easy. It also means that for the most part, we’re lazy.

Too many of us get home and then can’t be bothered to cook. That’s fine, if you’ve prepared in advance by batch-cooking so you can defrost at a later date. I do it all the time – throw a meal in a microwave or saucepan to defrost if I don’t have the time to cook from scratch. No problem at all.

It does mean one thing though – you need to be able to cook. But, whilst we’re on the subject, you should be able to cook. If you ‘can’t’ cook, grow up, you child.

sugar tax

The requirement to feed yourself is the most basic of human needs. If you’ve reached adulthood and haven’t at least developed a passable ability to apply heat to edible matter you should be ashamed of yourself.

Can’t cook? Get that little phone out of your pocket, head to a site called YouTube and look for how-to videos on cooking. It’s really not that difficult. You can turn on the TV any given day in the UK and I’d bet my mortgage I could find you a show were they teach you to cook something.

So, that’s an adults’ inability to cook covered. Now, onto the more serious matter, edookayshun (say it).

There is a worrying lack of education when it comes to food. I told a story a while back on the site about how after a personal training session, I spotted some blackberries on a bush in the park where we were training. I was eating them and my client (a 16 year old boy) looked at me like I was eating dog shit. He thought the idea of eating food from a bush was disgusting – he just didn’t know where food came from.

He isn’t alone. Most people have no idea about seasonality of food – why food quality and price varies throughout the year. Supermarket imports mean we can have fruit and veg all year round, so people aren’t aware of when it’s at its best.

We need to teach people when food is in season, how to shop in the most cost-effective way, how to cook the different cuts of meat and how to understand what good value is.

That has to start in school, but there needs to be more done for the adults. We need the parents to start understanding food, shopping and cooking better otherwise the cycle is never broken – we’ll have parents who don’t understand food fundamentals shopping and cooking for kids who know but don’t care because the message isn’t reinforced at home.

I’ll happily (and effectively) teach them, but I’m warning you, Mr Cameron, I’m not cheap to hire.

sugar tax

Further arguments for a sugar tax could be a healthier, more productive nation but that sounds a wee bit communist.

It does however result in significantly less NHS stress and god knows the NHS could do with a bit of a break. It’s having a tough enough time dealing with people as it is, without the burden of another 20 million obese diabetics with heart disease in a generations’ time. It reduces lost days through sickness absence, many company bosses will be glad to hear.

A tough government stance is required on the sugar tax, but would we get that?

Remind me – who is it that governments work for again? The people that elect them, or the multi-billion pound food companies with their very deep pockets? I fear they don’t have the foresight or the bravery to make the decision. It would be a game-changer for the nations’ health, but it would mean upsetting a lot of people.

That said, why should a government have to apologise for trying to make people healthier? You just can’t save some people from themselves; given the chance they’ll eat themselves to ill health and eventually death, all the while the tax payer has to carry that financial burden.

Personally, I’d like to see more textbooks in schools, better public libraries, a rise in the state pension, excellent state-funded sports facilities and more childcare and elderly care subsidies but there are limited resources and unfortunately a lot of them are being (literally) eaten up by an NHS treating people who won’t help themselves first.

Our lazy attitude to health has allowed obesity to become normalised.

Obesity is MEDICALLY FAT. Not just overweight – you’re now in a whole other category. It just isn’t taken seriously by people nowadays. People laugh about their weight and memes like this are produced and shared all over Facebook by those proud of the excess they carry…. images

I’ve never heard anyone laugh about having diabetes or heart disease, which are likely to be next if you keep it up.

Are things worse now than they were, obesity-wise?

Yes. Much worse. Across all the generations.

When I was at school, there was the fat KID. Maybe a couple if your school was big enough. A few years later there were the fat KIDS. Now, there are so many of them it doesn’t raise an eyebrow. They aren’t even in the minority anymore.

My son is in school in white, middle-class suburbia – the exact group that are supposed to be immune from these problems and yet there are fat kids in his school. Obesity is spreading, both literally and figuratively. This has gone beyond class (if such a thing still exists). Obesity doesn’t discriminate based on income or post code. You eat too much, you get fat, regardless of your household income.

People are so up in arms about a few pence on a chocolate bar that they are missing the point of the sugar tax – it’s designed to make us healthier. To improve the health of the nation, reduce the burden on the NHS and to improve the quality of life for all concerned, especially the children.

Kids today have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. A shocking statistic and it comes purely from the food we eat – we know more about exercise, we have better medicines, we are just making ourselves less healthy with the food we eat and the lack of exercise we take (although the food is far more important than the exercise in this case).

Shorter life spans than the generation before – the first time it’s ever happened, apart from during times of war. Think of the quality of that life for a second too – terrible from the get-go. Unfit, overweight, struggling to get around. Even if you ignore the inevitable health problems from being fat, there are the social issues.

Remember what life was like for fat kids at school?

Fucking horrendous.

The fat kids were bullied at school, picked last for sport, the butt of the jokes. Lessons such as PE must have been humiliating. Imagine having to do a swimming lesson as a 13 year old boy with a couple of solid c-cups….

sugar tax

And a strategy to address this is wrong? It’s a bad thing to try to prevent childhood obesity and improve the health of the nation as a whole?

Will a sugar tax make obesity in all forms go away? No, it won’t. Will it help at all? Yes, it certainly will. A sugar tax is an obesity prevention measure, not a magic cure.

As I said, I would like to see money raised from a sugar tax go toward subsidising fruit and vegetables and maybe even gym memberships. Perhaps it could even be used to fund state-owned farms which could sell produce in a farmers market to local residents, providing jobs and supplying communities with locally-grown, seasonal fruit and vegetables. It would certainly reduce food miles and supply chain costs.

It could serve as a place where school kids could go and learn about where our food comes from, what it is and how it is produced. All of a sudden lots of boxes are ticked – food grown in abundance, jobs provided, food education provided, more interest is shown in healthy food.

Either way, this is a long-winded way of saying that with fair and proper implementation I would support a sugar tax.

Just one more thing about those who oppose the sugar tax….

I wouldn’t be so bothered about the ‘no’ argument if there was a credible solution from their side, but there just isn’t. So what do they suggest? We just keep things the way they are and hope it’ll all go away?

It won’t. Obesity has been on the rise for over 40 years. It’s going nowhere fast. (Pun intended).

You may or may not agree with my stance, but if nothing else I hope it’s made you think about the issue of rising obesity, stress on the NHS and the potential introduction of a sugar tax.

If you’ve liked (or hated) this, please share it and bring the topic into discussion. You could even subscribe to my mailing list and get yourself a nifty free book – see below!

P.S. I’m giving away a FREE eBook ‘101 Health and Fitness Tips’ to everyone who subscribes to my VIP email list. By joining the list you’ll have access to exclusive content, discounts, offers and products from both me and selected partners. Click here to download!free health and fitness ebook

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Owner of Personal Trainer, Father and fitness copy writer. Working hard making the world fitter and healthier!

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