Can proposals for a world first snacks tax in the UK tackle the obesity crisis?

It’s a particularly rare occasion to see confectionery making front page headline national news, but the past week has seen the emergence of a potential global first being introduced in the UK, in the form of a tax on snacks.

The Daily Mail newspaper (pictured), was among those leading on the story, noting with concern that the independent government review’s recommendation as part of a wider National Food Strategy, would effectively impose a financial penalty on manufacturers. This would likely in turn be passed on to consumers, adding a projected 9p per purchase on items such as a Mars Bar, as well as even higher increases for ranges of certain cake ranges.

It’s certainly been a major talking point, with the policy, which has been endorsed by TV chef Jamie Oliver and restauranteur Henry Dimbleby, being seen in some quarters as amounting to no more than nanny state interference. Elsewhere, campaigners have openly welcomed it as a step in the right direction. Industry, one suspects, is somewhere in the middle, with the Food and Drink Federation noting the need for policy, while stating that introducing taxes could potentially hit lower income families hardest if prices of product ranges rise.

This brings into play wider ethical considerations, with many already calling for confectionery – particularly chocolate, to be significantly higher in price irrespective of any taxes, in order to deliver true sustainability in the cocoa sector, amid a backdrop of farming communities in West Africa struggling in many instances to survive on below poverty line wages.

As for the UK strategy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has waded into the issue – having admitted that his hospitalisation last year after contracting covid, had been worsened due to weight issues that reportedly prompted his change of heart in calling for a review on high fat, sugar and salt product ranges within the nation. The statistics are hard to escape, in that two thirds of adults, and a third of children are considered obese, which is costing the NHS billions in terms of treatment. In total, 64,000 deaths a year in the UK have been linked to obesity, and the pandemic it seems has done us no favours in that respect, with many leading enforced sedentary lifestyles with lockdown conditions.

This is undoubtedly a complex and thorny issue which is unlikely to be resolved to the satisfaction of either side of the debate – while there is a strong argument against state intervention on personal health issues, the opposite scenario is clearly not an option if the health crisis that is facing the nation is to be truly tackled.

Those in favour of the scheme have highlighted the success of the recently introduced sugar tax on drinks – which has yielded cuts of around 30% in sugar levels within soft beverages, which is unlikely to have been delivered had such schemes not been mandatory. The failure of Public Health England’s four-year campaign to encourage snacks and confectionery manufacturers to effectively self-regulate themselves on reducing sugar to achieve a target of 20% sugar reduction (most market segments failed to manage even a couple of percentage cuts), has demonstrated that voluntary initiatives are not effective.

Clearly, education lies at the heart of this issue, and as has been pointed out by a number of people in the industry, we all need a few treats in our lives, but enjoyment moderation is most definitely the key. As our Confectionery Production board member Andy Baxendale has long noted, ‘we all need sugar in our diets’ so it’s assuredly not something that should be demonised, as in these challenging times, the odd indulgent moment is something that frankly, we all need a little of. But perhaps a greater degree of government leadership on the issue in combination with some common sense among consumers, will hopefully have a positive impact on the obesity situation that remains a significant issue facing the sector.

Neill Barston,editor, Confectionery Production

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