The desperation of the sugar-tax lobby

Posted on February 19, 2016

"Sugary drinks tax 'would stop millions becoming obese'", screams the top story on BBC News this morning, reporting on 'research' published by Cancer Research UK and the UK Health Forum. A tax of 20 per cent would, it is claimed, 'prevent 3.7 million people becoming obese over the next decade'. However, a little bit more digging suggests such a claim is utterly bogus.

The research is based on modeling what would happen if such a tax were to be imposed. The report claims that sugary drinks consumption would fall by 16 per cent with the tax. However, the authors do at least acknowledge that people might eat and drink other things, so offsetting the effect of the tax on consumption. The overall effect would be to reduce calorie consumption by… wait for it… 15 calories per day. That's 0.75 per cent of a woman's guideline consumption and just 0.6 per cent of a man's.

That didn't stop the organisations behind the report making some astonishing claims. Alison Cox, from Cancer Research UK, told the Beeb: "The ripple effect of a small tax on sugary drinks is enormous. These numbers make it clear why we need to act now before obesity becomes an even greater problem."

A reduction of 15 calories per day would make a tiny difference, if any, to the nation's waistlines. To generate that astonishing figure of 3.7 million, the organisations behind the report have to postulate 'ripple effects'. At best, such a tax would move people from one side of an arbitrary dividing line to another, from 'just about obese' to 'not quite obese'. The effect on the nation's health would be infinitesimally small. Even the authors have to conclude that it would reduce costs to the NHS by just £10 million - less than 0.1 per cent of the NHS budget.

This is desperate stuff, one last flailing attempt to get the government to impose a tax in its forthcoming obesity strategy. But given that this 'research' comes from Cancer Research UK, which seems to have forgotten its mission of curing cancer in favour of demanding ever more lifestyle regulation, and the UK Health Forum, whose governing board include some of the biggest scaremongers in public health today, it should come as no surprise.