Is the sugar tax really enough?

An interview with Professor Mike Lean.

Credit: Caitlan Mutch

Credit: Caitlan Mutch

Rowan Harris

The company behind Irn Bru, AG Barr, has recently hinted at a 10% reduction in its workforce in order to compensate for financial losses expected from the “negative media coverage” of soft drinks. This follows the announcement of the sugar tax on soft drinks earlier this year, an attempt by the UK Government to tackle childhood obesity and associated health issues. Regular Irn Bru is currently set to attract the top rate of tax when the policy is implemented in 2018.

Organisations such as Cancer Research UK and Obesity Action Scotland have argued the tax itself is not enough to reduce the levels of obesity. Professor Mike Lean, Chairman of Nutrition at the University of Glasgow, suggests that the impact of the sugar tax will be limited: “There will be a wobble in sales and someone will claim it has had an effect, but I don’t believe it will have any effect on obesity. It would be trivial at best.”

“If your palate is adjusted to that sweet taste, you will still be attracted to sweet foods elsewhere. The amount of calories people get from sugary drinks is not that high. The effect on weight gain and obesity in adults moving towards low sugar-artificially sweetened drinks is very small. Some studies have shown that people who drink more artificially sweetened drinks are actually getting fatter, partly because they’re still looking for sweet things.”
When asked why the sugar tax does not go far enough, Lean said “Most people don’t know the price of a bottle of cola and the additional money won’t count for much unless it is made very obvious, say for example it said on the bottle that it included a 10 pence tax for sugar. That will start ringing a small bell, as it did with the carrier bag charge, if people can see that the price is increased for that purpose.”

While the sugar tax proposals included a sliding scale based on the total sugar content of soft drinks per 100ml, with over 5g and 8g per 100ml attracting a total of 18p and 24p tax per litre respectively, sweets were excluded and remain classed as “treats”.

“You don’t have to look far to see that they have been normalised as well,” said Lean. “You try to buy a paper from W.H.Smiths, even in the Royal Infirmary and they try and sell you a slab of chocolate for £1 which has got 600-800 calories in it as a way of normalising it, so you think that it’s ok to eat chocolate any time of day.

“People are now developing diabetes and heart issues earlier in life. If the government are serious about obesity and weight gain in young people as well as diabetes, they’re going to have to somehow de-normalise them to the extent that people prefer to drink water and keep sweets for special occasions. It’s going to be a long battle to explore that.”

When asked how this de-normalisation might take place, he said “The same thing happened with smoking. All the noise about smoking and the damage that it does, its cost and putting a tax on it didn’t really do anything until the conversation picked up on the fact that people were being manipulated. That in being part of this “club” you are lining someone else’s pockets with money. Independence is being worn away, individuality is being eroded.
“Nothing will change until the conversation reaches the point where people realise ‘Hang on, we’ve been hoodwinked by this company’. They’re all doing the same thing, using sugar to manipulate people’s tastes by flooding their taste buds with sweetness. Now the artificial sweeteners are doing the job cheaper for them. If everyone keeps drinking sweet things, they’ll keep wanting them. However, I think young people have wised-up on the politics of industry.”

Irn Bru was the official sponsor of the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Lean believes that promoting soft drinks in this way has had an indisputably negative impact.

“The Commonwealth Games did a great job of promoting Glasgow, as I’m sure everybody agrees. but the cost of that was ultimately increasing the presence of Irn Bru – a bunch of chemicals, colourings and sweeteners. It costs peanuts to make and is sold for quite a lot of money with some very expensive marketing. The sporting agencies have bought into this. No sportsmen will be drinking Irn Bru, but the collateral damage is the general public. People talk about the legacy effect of the Olympics – people were sat watching the T.V. for a long period of time and probably, because they were getting advertisements for Coca-Cola the whole time, associate sporting events with Coca-Cola. And that’s how soft drinks perpetuate their sales.

“Sponsorship of sporting events is absolutely essential to what they do and the sporting agencies don’t fully shoulder the responsibility for what’s happening to the rest of the population. Governments and sporting agencies should have said ‘no, we’ll do without some of this mega sponsorship, we won’t have quite the razzmatazz – we’ll do something that actually promotes sport rather than promoting Coca-Cola and Irn Bru.’

“At the time I had meetings with Donald Henderson who is the head of the Saint Andrew’s House of Public Health and Civil Servants. He was under pressure to take sponsorship to combat Coca-Cola doing the Commonwealth Games. It was agreed grudgingly that a Scottish company at least would be better than Coca-Cola and so in a way it was a tiny triumph for Scottish Industry but you have to say that either of them is just inappropriate.

“The same is to be said of smoking. It’s like tobacco companies sponsoring sports. At one point Marlboro used to sponsor motor racing, now it’s Red Bull. Is there a difference? They’re both completely inappropriate.”


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