As we all head eagerly to the polling booth we ask : Should the government take tax revenue from socially problematic products?

Placing ‘sin taxes’ on what we eat and drink (including alcohol), and on gambling, is a controversial subject touching on personal areas of our lives. But is the government right to get involved?

Taxing food and drink – the background

The figures don’t make for comfortable reading. Obesity has slashed average life expectancy in the UK by three years, and it affects poorer communities disproportionately.

In 2016, more than a quarter (29%) of Scotland’s children were at risk of becoming overweight (including obesity), while 65% of adults were overweight and 29% obese. (Source: NHS Scotland) Meanwhile, in England, a third of 10 and 11-year-olds are overweight.

Unhealthy diet and inactivity are among the preventable causes of 50% of chronic diseases and 40% of cancers. Ninety per cent of the public said they support the government working with industry to make food and drinks healthier.

Sugary drinks and fast food

A recent British Medical Journal study made a positive link between the risk of overall cancer, including breast cancer, and sugary drink consumption – though these results would need to be replicated in other large-scale surveys.

One 200m juice pouch contains five sugar cubes – the recommended daily intake for 4 to 6-year-olds; 330ml of cola has nine cubes, i.e. two more than the daily recommended intake for children aged 11+.

There’s already a ‘sugar tax’ on soft drinks; introduced in April 2018, it is aimed at reducing consumption. Drinks with a sugar content of over 5g per 100ml are taxed at 18p a litre; drinks above 8g per 100ml at 24p. Milk, pure fruit juices and the smaller producers remain untaxed.

A similar levy operates in Mexico and Hungary, where it has been highly effective, as well as in France and Finland – while in Norway, chocolate is also taxed.

Fast food, slow killer?

We’re all eating more on the move, turning to ready meals or ordering takeaways via apps on our phones.

Yet this kind of food tends to be packed with salt and fats, and a study in France has linked heavily processed foods to a greater risk of dying early. Another study suggested that fast food outlets on commuter routes are fuelling the obesity crisis.

Last December, the then chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies – the most senior government adviser on public health – said the food industry had ‘failed the public’, and she called for taxes on unhealthy food high in salt and sugar. Even more controversially, she also wanted to ban snacking on public transport.

Davies added that voluntary targets set by Public Health England to make products healthier had not been met.

The case against

While some argue the current levy doesn’t go far enough, Conservative MP for Colchester William Quince described the sugar tax as “patronising, regressive and the nanny state at its worst”. He is not alone in believing that the government shouldn’t dictate what people can or can’t eat and drink.  Opponents of the sugar tax espouse the notion of individual responsibility, pointing to the role of schools and parents in ensuring children eat and drink sensibly.

Others stress that taxing may not shape consumer behaviour as effectively as portion control, and that it affects poorer people disproportionately.

Another argument is that it may be better to work with the food and drink industry rather than taxing it. For its part, the industry says changes cannot happen overnight – and it claims to be already making progress without taxes. It adds that sugar in food isn’t just about sweetness, but also about texture, colour and consistency.

Meanwhile, health campaigners say the tax is ineffective unless there are also levies on chocolate, sweets and confectionery. Finally, a study at Glasgow University found fat intake is also crucial in reducing obesity, so focusing on sugar alone confuses consumers.

Alcohol

Nearly a quarter (24%) of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink over the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines of no more than 14 weekly units.

Recent years have also seen some huge cuts to rehab services – with researchers in London referring to an ‘epidemic’ of alcohol-related issues. In all, more than £100m has been cut since 2012, meaning money raised from tax is arguably needed more than ever.

There’s also an uneven picture across the UK, with those in Scotland who need treatment for alcohol-related issues more likely to receive it.

In favour of taxation

Alcohol is taxed in the form of excise duties. In the most recent budget in late 2018, duty on beer and spirits was frozen, while a bottle of wine became 7p more expensive, and sparkling wine 10p dearer.

These duties raise money for the government while helping to cover the healthcare and other costs associated with alcohol-related issues. Public Health England says raising taxes is cost-effective, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) agrees – it has a target of reducing global alcohol consumption by 10%.

 

 

The case against

The pub industry says this hits an already struggling pub sector affected by the smoking ban and cheap supermarket sales. The Telegraph reported in February 2019 that a pub closes down every 12 hours.

Here again, there have been accusations of an interfering ‘nanny state’, with one survey by alcohol consumer group Drinkers’ Voice claiming that only 1 in 10 believe higher taxes go on helping those who abuse alcohol, making excise duties merely a ‘cash cow’ for the government.

Gambling

In 2017, a Gambling Commission report found that over two million people were either addicted to gambling or at risk of developing a problem. It called on the industry and government to do more.

Problem gaming can be hidden for longer than drink or drugs addiction from family, friends and colleagues since its outward manifestations are much less noticeable. Equally, the internet makes it significantly easier to gamble more often.

While we might all enjoy a flutter at the races or buy an occasional lottery ticket, addictive gambling can significantly harm relationships as well as mental health and wellbeing, not to mention leading to serious debt.

The Gambling Commission regulates the industry, and operators rather than players are taxed. The law on gambling tax has changed regularly over the years, in keeping with the way gaming itself has changed.

From 1st October 2019, online gambling on slots, casino games and similar ‘games of chance’ rose 6% from 15% to 21%. This will probably be passed on to the player in the form of different odds and return to player percentages.

It’s worth noting that customers pay no tax in the UK on betting or any subsequent winnings.

The commission has found evidence of increased addiction among those playing Fixed-Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs).  These slot machines in betting shops allowed members of the public to spend up to £100 every 20 seconds, so the maximum stake was cut drastically to £2 in April this year, triggering an overhaul of gambling tax.

Lost revenue from the machine-gaming duty levied on FOBTs is expected to cost the exchequer £1.15bn over five years. The Treasury will make up for the shortfall as described above.

It’s perhaps hard to think of a reason why you wouldn’t want to tax this industry, given the problems of addictive gambling, particularly as the money raised could perhaps be used more to provide support services for addicts, e.g. GAMSTOP, Gamblers Anonymous, NHS.

Summing up

The government already taxes sugar, alcohol and gambling in various ways, but the arguments continue, with some saying the levies don’t go far enough and others that they should be scrapped. Then there are those who insist new duties should be imposed. It’s a debate which goes right to the heart of government involvement in our personal choices – and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.

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