Comment: A tax on soft drinks is not the right way to deal with obesity

By Gavin Partington

The publication earlier this week of a report from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, calling for a tax on sugary soft drinks, has renewed the national discussion about the connection between people's diet and their health.

The soft drinks industry wants to take part in that debate, because it has always taken its responsibility to its customers and employees very seriously. We understand that obesity is a major and growing concern, and that people want to make the best choices possible for themselves and their families.

We also agree that obesity is a complex issue, with no single solution, and it is clear that the soft drinks industry can play an important role in addressing it, helping people to make healthier choices.

There are lots of reasons why people might eat and drink as much as they do, and lots more reasons why people don't take as much as exercise as they might. Any strategy for dealing with obesity needs to take all these factors into account – calories in and calories out – and not focus on just one part of our lifestyles.

A tax on soft drinks is not going to have an impact on rising obesity rates. Soft drinks containing sugar contribute just two per cent of the calories in the average diet, after all, and over the past 10 years, while obesity rates have been going up, the consumption of soft drinks containing added sugar has actually gone down. Additionally, more than 60% of soft drinks contain no added sugar, up from 30% 20 years ago.

However, even though the consumption of calories from soft drinks has been falling, there is still more that the soft drinks industry can do.  That is why a growing number of soft drinks companies have signed up to the government's Public Health Responsibility Deal, making firm commitments to help people make healthier choices and enjoy their products as part of a balanced diet. These are robust pledges with ambitious targets that will be measured and reported on. The industry is serious about the positive role it can play.

We also need to point out our concerns about the potential impact such a tax could have on a thriving and important manufacturing industry. There are about 12,000 people employed in the soft drinks industry as a whole, with another 50,000 jobs among suppliers and others reliant on the sector.  We would be concerned about what the impact of new taxes would be on the future growth of this industry. A similar tax in Denmark was scrapped at the end of last year because of similar fears.

Don't forget also that soft drinks are already taxed – 10p from each 60p can of drink goes to the government thanks to VAT. A further tax on a family's food and drink shopping bill would put yet more strain onto people already hard-pressed during tough economic times.

We are proud that people enjoy our products, and we are proud to make them. We do not believe that a complex issue such as obesity can be solved by the targeting and demonising of one part of people's diet.

Everyone – individuals, parents, families and industry – needs to work together to help to solve this problem. For some people that might mean cutting back on what they eat, for others it might mean switching from regular to diet drinks, for most people it might mean taking a bit more exercise. We do not believe that placing a further tax on people's favourite food and drinks is the right or fair solution.

Gavin Partington is director general of the British Soft Drinks Association.

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