Not so sweet? Debating a Welsh sugar tax

8 December 2015

Article by Megan Jones, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

picture of lumps of sugar

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

In plenary on Wednesday, Assembly Members will take part in a debate on the introduction of a sugar tax. The non-government motion for debate tabled by Elin Jones, proposes that:

The National Assembly for Wales:

Calls on the Welsh Government to bring forward proposals to use new taxation powers under the Wales Act 2014 to allow the next Welsh Government to introduce a levy on sugary drinks.

Sugar Tax

A sugar tax involves increasing the price of sugary foods and/or drinks, such as soft drinks, with the aim of decreasing the consumption of such products.

A number of European countries have already introduced additional taxes on sugary or fatty foods. An additional tax on sweets, chocolate, cocoa-based products, ice cream and ice lollies has been in place in Finland since 2011, as well as a separate additional tax on soft drinks. In the same year, Hungary introduced an additional tax on products such as soft drinks, energy drinks and pre-packed sweetened products, salty snacks and condiments. France introduced a tax on all drinks with added sugar or artificial sweeteners in 2012.

Wales

At present, the National Assembly for Wales does not have the general power to impose new taxes, such as the sugar tax. However, the Wales Act 2014 gives the Welsh Government the power to introduce new devolved taxes, but only with the prior agreement of the UK Government, through an Order in Council. Therefore, the Welsh Government could, with the support of the UK Government, use its new fiscal powers as a means of introducing a sugar tax in Wales.

The idea of a sugar or ‘pop tax’ has attracted some support from stakeholders including the British Medical Association (BMA) in its Food for Thought report, and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) in its manifesto Child Health Matters, as well as celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

During a debate on obesity in the National Assembly in May 2015, the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, stated that a sugar tax was ‘an interesting idea’, but ‘not sufficient on its own’, to deal with the problem of childhood obesity.

UK Position

In October 2015 Public Health England (PHE) published a review of the evidence concerning measures to reduce sugar consumption. The review, Sugar reduction: the evidence for action, concludes that a range of factors are contributing to increased sugar consumption, and that a correspondingly broad range of measures is needed in response, such as action to address:

  • price promotions in shops and restaurants
  • the marketing and advertising of high sugar products to children
  • the sugar content in and portion size of everyday food and drink products

Additionally the review considers a tax or a levy, as a means of reducing sugar intake, but suggests that tackling marketing, pricing and food content may be more effective.

In November 2015, the House of Commons Health Select Committee published a report, Childhood Obesity – Brave and Bold Action, which recommended the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks. The chair of the Committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, said:

A full package of bold measures is required and should be implemented as soon as possible. We believe that a sugary drinks tax should be included in these measures with all proceeds clearly directed to improving our children’s health.

Following the organisation of a petition, with over 100,000 signatures, calling on the UK Government to introduce a tax on sugary drinks, the matter was debated by the UK Parliament on 30 November 2015. In response to both the petition and debate, the UK Government confirmed:

The Government has no plans to introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages […]

The causes of obesity are complex, caused by a number of dietary, lifestyle, environmental and genetic factors, and tackling it will require a comprehensive and broad approach. As such, the Government is considering a range of options for tackling childhood obesity, and the contribution that Government, alongside industry, families and communities can make, and will announce its plans for tackling childhood obesity by the end of the year.

Welsh Government

One of the issues the Welsh Government is currently highlighting to tackle obesity is adverts that market food and drink that are high in fat, salt and sugar to children. The Health Minister, Mark Drakeford, has called on the UK Government to ban adverts for fatty and sugary food from being broadcast before 9pm.

According to the Minister:

Adverts marketing soft drinks, chocolate, other confectionery, and sugary cereals are all making significant contributions to children consuming free sugar.

All these food sectors are actively marketed during the advertisement breaks of TV programmes we know our children and young people watch […]

That’s why I have written to the UK Government […] to call for an immediate extension to the Ofcom high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) broadcast advertising regulations, which would ban these adverts from appearing on our TV screens until after 9pm.

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