Want to know if the ‘sugar tax’ is a good idea? Ask a mum

It’s turning into a big year for the much talked-about ‘sugar tax’ on unhealthy soft drinks.

George Osborne has clearly been listening to the great and the good of the health and food sectors, among others, and has announced intentions to impose a levy on manufacturers some time in 2018.

But I believe there’s one group whose opinions could really add to this debate – mums. And this mum thinks the Chancellor’s solution doesn’t quite go far enough.

We no doubt all agree on the problem. The soft drinks industry is worth £15bn, but the link between sugary drinks and obesity has become undeniable. Just look at where people get their sugar from – it’s 20% from soft drinks for adults, and 40% for teenagers.

I’m not an expert but I am a mother of two young children and, as any responsible adult, I would applaud any initiative aimed at helping people get less sugar in their bodies. However, I believe the ‘sugar tax’ raises a few questions. For a start, shouldn’t we, retailers, manufacturers and the other industry stakeholders take greater responsibility in better educating and helping the consumers for more informed choices?

I don’t think the answer to the sugar tax debate should be ‘either or’: it is about us all building the pathway for healthier behaviours.

I always used to infuse my own water at home, but whenever I reached for on-the-go drinks I found they were laden with sugar. Like everyone else, I would buy them in good faith as many were billed as “healthy”, only to discover that they were far from it. This turned into a mission when I became a mum more than four years ago, and everything my son grabbed for in cafes and coffee shops was packed with sugar. These not only sent him up the wall, but they taught him to have a sweet tooth. I started to feel strongly that there should be an alternative and I looked into why the drinks industry was the way it was.

I discovered not only that “healthy” costs more to produce but that the firms producing such drinks tend to be smaller and often can’t afford the premiums charged by high street retailers for prominent shelf space.

So I don’t think the proposed sugar tax is the only way forward. Adding a few pence to a can of cola would make the consumer feel he or she is being unfairly punished, if the levy is passed on, whereas prior constructive initiatives would help consumer education. Surely a state where the consumer is better informed and educated on healthier, cleaner choices would be a positive and constructive approach to change actual buying behaviour.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a few proposals which I think would be a great starting point.

If retailers committed to a minimum quota of shelf-space for healthier, sugar-free and clean alternatives, customers could be tempted to try something new. As it is, newcomers can’t break into that space, which is dominated by high sugar drinks promoted by companies with the deepest pockets. Rather than a sugar tax imposed by Government, this could be achieved by retailers voluntarily charging a premium on the cost to manufacturers for the in-store promotion of sugary drinks with the proceeds going into a national fund. Those funds could then be returned, in the form of a shelf space subsidy, to retailers who were prepared to open up the shelves to healthier players.

As it is, the sector is confusing for consumers. So isn’t it also time to introduce a kitemark for truly healthy and clean products that contain no sugar, no artificial sweeteners, no preservatives and are low in calories – just clean and natural – so people are better informed? Drinks are so often billed as sporty, healthy, energetic, cool or fruity, but the reality is they often contain piles of sugar.

With this kitemark in place, the Government could then reduce the VAT on healthy soft drinks that meet this standard – from 20% to 5%. That would serve as an incentive for the whole industry to aim for the kitemark and improve the healthiness of their products.

Changing habits takes time, but these moves could make a real, lasting transformation. They could also be a chance for the industry to redeem itself after all the negative publicity about sugar and its effects. We could see newer, healthier soft drinks take their place on the shelves and in consumers’ hands, and that in turn could influence the big players.

And that’s something every mum could get behind.

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