‘Sugar tax’ a good idea if not for political minefield
Hong Kong’s plan for a voluntary scheme is a step forward, as long as the targets that have been set are met
A World Health Organisation regional workshop on obesity has added weight to the deliberations of an advisory panel on healthier eating set up by the Hong Kong government. The WHO called on regional governments, including ours, to consider imposing a tax on soft drinks – particularly sugar-sweetened beverages such as fruit juices and soda, which are suspected of being largely to blame for the rise in obesity.
The local panel, set up 18 months ago under the chairmanship of executive councillor Bernard Chan, has been tasked with promoting less salt and sugar in food. Hong Kong, where one in five people is said to be overweight, and the WHO are clearly on the same page in trying to change consumption habits linked to obesity and lifestyle health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. But Chan’s committee has said that rather than a mandatory approach like a tax, it favours a voluntary participation by the food and beverage industry in a programme to cut salt and sugar consumption by 30 per cent over 10 years.
The restaurant trade has warned against arbitrarily increasing costs, the burden of which would fall disproportionately on people who can least afford to pay more for their food. But the advisory panel should closely monitor British experience with a newly introduced soft drinks industry levy, nicknamed the “sugar tax”, which directly targets the producers and importers of sugary soft drinks to encourage them to remove added sugar, promote diet drinks, and reduce portion sizes for drinks high in sugar.
The British government argues this is not a tax on consumers as companies don’t have to pass the charge on to their customers. Indeed, it claims that if companies take the right steps to make their drinks healthier they will pay less tax, or even none. A “sugar tax” is the most effective way of cutting consumption, but the most politically difficult to introduce. Meanwhile, the advisory panel’s approach could be the surest way forward, along with government plans for a “low salt and sugar” voluntary labelling scheme for pre-packaged food.