UK sugar tax pledge likely to revive campaign in Ireland

Doctors urge a similar measure here, but food and drink lobby opposed

The next government will face increasing calls for some form of sugar tax following the introduction of a policy in the UK announced this week.

While Minister for Health Leo Varadkar had championed a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks, the Department of Finance blocked it from the last budget.

The UK move has given new life to the debate, even though a tax is already contained in the manifestos of Ireland’s main political parties.

Any further moves to follow the British example will be fought by the food and drinks industry, which has said taxation is less effective than other measures already embraced.


‘Protect children’

However, the policy group on obesity at the Royal College of Physicians


welcomed the British commitment to introduce the measure within two years and said the next Irish government needed to adopt a similar position “to protect children”.

“It can’t come a moment too soon as we continue to battle high rates of obesity,” it said, adding that one in four children were overweight or obese.

There were similarly renewed calls from the Health Research Board’s Centre for Health and Diet Research which had strongly supported Mr Varadkar’s policy initiative last year.

Professor Ivan Perry said the centre had conducted a survey in 2014 of over 1,000 school children in Cork which found that 82 per cent consumed sugary drinks. The consumption level increased proportionally to the weight of the child.

“There are two reasons [for sugar taxation]. The first is that the tax will have some effect on the levels of consumption,” he said.

“The other is a more fundamental reason. By putting a tax on these goods you are sending out a very clear signal to parents that these are the sorts of calories they can and should avoid.”

‘Empty calories’

Mr Perry said the argument that such policy unequally targeted low income families held no merit as “sugary drinks are not a vital part of anyone’s diet. You are talking about empty calories”.

David Madden at the School of Economics in UCD said this issue might be addressed with a counteractive subsidy on healthy food like fruit and vegetables.

“I don’t think that the distributional issue would be a binding constraint if the government wanted to introduce a tax,” he said.

However, the Food and Drink Industry Ireland lobby remains staunchly opposed. Director Paul Kelly called the UK measure "political theatre" and said the evidence pointed to "patchy" international experience.

“Our view is that there are more effective ways of dealing with obesity,” he said.

His group claimed more significant progress had been made through the reformulation of drinks recipes, and said sugar was something to be consumed in moderation.

A levy on products which contain it, Mr Kelly said, “is very much a double taxation” alongside existing VAT.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times