Cancer, obesity and Boris Johnson’s ‘sin tax’ error

With Cancer Research UK confirming that obesity is the leading cause of four common cancers in the UK, it’s a scandal that Boris Johnson is questioning the effectiveness of taxes on food and drinks products, and whether taxes unfairly hit those on low incomes (Obesity rivals smoking as cause of several cancers, warns charity, 3 July).

Rather than being penalised, the poorest stand to benefit the most. Sugary drink consumption levels tend to be highest among the most disadvantaged children, who are hit hardest by obesity and tooth decay. By suggesting exercise can help solve the UK’s obesity crisis, which is not backed by evidence unlike the sugar levy and the voluntary sugar and salt reduction programmes, Mr Johnson is unfairly putting the onus on individuals.

The tax on soft drinks, commonly referred to as the “sugar tax”, has already resulted in over 50% of manufacturers reducing the sugar content of drinks since it was announced in March 2016 – the equivalent of 45m kg of sugar every year. In Mexico, a one peso per litre sugary drinks tax (a 10% price increase) led to a 12% drop in consumption overall, and a 17% drop in consumption among lower-income households. In Hungary, a tax on sugary products led 40% of manufacturers to reduce or eliminate sugar to avoid the tax.

High levels of sugar consumption are contributing to soaring rates of obesity, which is a major risk factor for many serious health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer – not to mention the huge cost to the NHS. Tackling the root causes of obesity, through a sugar tax, has the potential to bring about massive savings and we should be looking to extend levies to other high sugar, salt and fat products, not halting them.

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