Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is set to introduce its very own sugar tax in a bid to cajole government ministers into rolling out the tax country-wide. Drinks and snacks sold in cafes, shops and vending machines on NHS premises will all have a 20 percent surcharge slapped on them, potentially raising millions of pounds for the service each year. Critics have called the tax “regressive” and said it will do nothing but penalise the poor.
The sugar tax will be rolled out across every acute, mental health and community service hospital in the country by 2020, health boss Simon Stevens told The Guardian. He insisted that the measure will help tackle a “national sugar high” by discouraging patients and staff from buying snacks and drinks.
“Because of the role that the NHS occupies in national life, all of us working in the NHS have a responsibility not just to support those who look after patients but also to draw attention to and make the case for some of the wider changes that will actually improve the health of this country,” Stevens said.
“We will be consulting on introducing an NHS sugar tax on various beverages and other sugar-added foods across the NHS which would be enforced over time as contracts for food catering and the shops that are in the foyers of hospitals come up for renewal over the next three to five years over a rolling basis.
“By 2020, we’ve either got these practices out of hospitals or we’ve got the equivalent of a sugar tax on the back of them,” he added.
“It’s not just the wellbeing of people in this country and our children. But it’s also the sustainability of the NHS itself.”
Once fully rolled out, Stevens expects the tax to raise between £20m and £40m a year for the cash-strapped service, but instead of putting that money towards front line care for patients, Stevens plans to splurge it on schemes designed to improve the health of NHS workers. Pampered employees, some of whom already receive among the highest wages for health workers in the world, are to be offered free physio sessions, Zumba classes and yoga to improve their wellbeing.
Yet Stevens, who has a “strong working relationship” with both the Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne has a wider vision than taxing people within his own organisation, however. He intends to persuade government ministers to take radical action on purveyors of sugary snacks, forcing them to strip the sugar from their products on the grounds that obesity is a national problem.
“Smoking still kills 80,000-plus people a year, smoking is still a huge problem, he said. “But it turns out that diet has edged ahead.
“We’ve taken out 15% of added salt from our food over the course of the last decade. We need to set comparably ambitious targets for added sugar and hold the food industry to account for that with regulatory action to guarantee that … [it happens in] … a matter of several years.”
Other measures may include banning shops from offering deals and discounts on foods and beverages deemed unhealthy, an option which Scotland is already considering, thanks to a campaign by The Times.
Maureen Watt, the minister for public health in Scotland, told that paper: “It is important that consumers are supported to make healthier choices.
“We are continuing to work closely with retailers, including major supermarket chains, to encourage them to offer healthier choices. Part of this work includes encouraging them to shift the balance of their promotions towards healthier options.
“There are clear health benefits associated with reducing sugar consumption, as part of a healthy diet. We are examining what further effective actions we can take within the current powers of the Scottish government that would have an impact on obesity rates, including on the use of multi-buy promotions.”
It’s a move that Stevens would welcome. Criticising shops for offering two-for-one promotions on cakes and biscuits, he said: “Even the national chains … let alone the Elephant & Castle shops [near NHS England’s London base] – it’s all there.”
But free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs has slammed the move as “ineffective, but also unfair.”
Head of lifestyle economics Chris Snowdon said: “Taxing soft drinks, no matter where they are purchased, hits the poorest hardest and has never been shown to reduce obesity anywhere in the world.
“Despite sugar consumption falling over the last thirty years it has become the scapegoat for rising levels of obesity. The introduction of a tax on sugary drinks, whether in an NHS café or the newsagents next door would be regressive, inefficient and mark the start of more nanny state interventions.”