The UK government heavily taxes cigarettes and alcohol. For example, around 80% of the price of a pack of cigarettes is tax, and tobacco sales generate around £10 billion a year in taxation revenue.
So why does it not also tax junk foods? What, exactly, is the perceived difference?
Why is our system of taxation and subsidies not designed to make healthy foods more affordable and unhealthy ones more expensive? What is the point of the UK government spending mega millions on campaigns designed to coax people into making healthier choices, when it’s cheaper to buy a takeaway, a ready meal or a monstrous meat pie than it is to put together a dish of real, fresh, organic foods?
Of course, the definition of “junk food” would have to be relatively narrow here. The Food Standards Agency advises moderation with any food or drink that contains more than:
- 10 grams of sugar
- 5 grams of saturated fat
- 0.5 grams of sodium
Any processed (as opposed to real), non-organic food that qualifies on any of the above can fairly safely be called junk. Though foods and drinks containing trans fats, or sporting ingredients lists like this…
“Carbonated Water, Colour (E150d Caramel), Sweeteners (E951 Aspartame*, E954 Sodium Saccharin), E338 Phosphoric Acid, Flavourings, E330 Citric Acid, Preservative (E211 Sodium Benzoate), Acidity Regulator (E331 Sodium Citrate), Caffeine, Anti-foaming Agent (E900 Dimethylpolysiloxane)”
…are junk regardless of fat, sugar or salt content. In case you’re wondering, it’s a diet cola.
Junk food consumption costs the health service untold millions every year, and sports a massive great carbon footprint. So why not insist that those of us who want to eat such foods must pay duties on them which reflect their true cost to society? It’s not as if those who can’t afford to would be missing anything that’s necessary or good for them.
Let’s be clear: the only people who really benefit from junk food’s true cost being externalised to society as a whole are the companies and investors who get rich off others getting sick.
Of course, the stock objection to suggestions that the government should introduce fiscal measures that encourage people to adopt better diets is that it is a “nanny state” measure. But surely anyone who objects to “nannying” believes that we must each take full responsibility for our actions, and their consequences. All a tax would do is ensure that those of us who make the choice to consume junk food pay a price for it that more closely reflects its true cost.
The duty on cigarettes goes a long way towards paying for the indirect costs of smoking. A junk food tax that reflects the true cost to society of these “foods” would be the surest way to improve the nation’s health, the nation’s finances and our collective carbon footprint to boot.