The move, to impose a 20% levy on all sugary food, drink and snacks sold in cafés and vending machines by 2020 in an effort to combat obesity, was revealed by NHS chief executive Simon Stevens last month. Stevens said the plan would be enforced on a phased basis, as and when food catering contracts came up for renewal.
Ian Wright, director general at the Food and Drink Federation, said the move which is expected to generate a windfall of £20M – £40M a year was more about making money than any desire to change behaviours.
He claimed it was “puzzling” that Stevens had chosen to pre-empt the launch of the government’s childhood obesity strategy to announce plans for new taxes, which haven’t ever shown to make a sustained difference to obesity.
Driven by money
“Public Health England acknowledges there is a lack of evidence about the long-term effectiveness of additional taxes on food and drink. We can only assume, therefore, that today’s announcement is driven more by the need to raise money than by any wish to change behaviours,” Wright said.
Gavin Partington, director general at the British Soft Drinks Association, said the UK soft drinks industry had led the way in cutting calories and reducing the sugar in products.
“Through new product development, reformulation, smaller pack sizes and increased promotion of low- and no-calorie options, the soft drinks category has reduced calories by 7.5% in recent years, with plans to reduce calories by a further 20% by 2020,” he said. “This is the right approach – encouraging balanced diets and healthy lifestyles is better than punishing consumers with higher prices.”
The move did receive support from the Hospital Caterers Association (HCA), which suggested it was a strong step forward in achieving a healthier lifestyle for NHS staff and visitors.
“We support the plans, while recognising that our staff need varied nutritional support due to long shift patterns and nocturnal hours,” said HCA national chair Phil Shelley.
According to HCA estimates, the average price for a standard sugary bottled drink in hospital vending machines is £1.55, and an added 20% tax would bring this up to £1.86 – similar to that found in expensive service stations and city transport hubs.
Shelley said he had “some reservations” about how expensive the visitor experience already was in hospitals and would be wary of increasing that.
“The tax, however, does not address the question of whether we should be offering these kinds of products at all.
“We need to be sensitive to high-stress environments such as Accident and Emergency, which perhaps could be exempt. But there is a potential for 90% of hospital areas to be completely free of vending machines selling sugary drinks and snacks, which would mitigate the need for the tax announced today.”