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IEA - A government clamp-down on sugar would have harmful effects

New IEA research dispels the myth that government intervention in the sugar industry is justified

Scant evidence exists to justify government interference in the UK’s food supply. Britons consume less sugar per head today than in 1900 and yet calls for ‘action on sugar’ are more prominent than ever.

In Sweet Truth – Is there a market failure in sugar?, Rob Lyons and Christopher Snowdon scrutinise the justification for increasing government interference in the sugar market, as has been recently proposed by the British Medical Association with its call for a 20 per cent sugar tax. The paper dispels the myth that ‘sugar is the new tobacco’ and that individuals need to be saved from their own ignorance if the nation’s health is to be protected.

Key findings:

  • Restricting advertising on certain foods is foolish - Plans to impose a watershed ban on the advertising of unhealthy foods would deprive consumers of valuable product information and act as a form of censorship. If adopted, the promotion of every day food and drink products would be confined to a few hours late at night.
  • Competition would suffer if access to high-calorie foods was limited - Attempts to formally restrict the availability of certain foods would stifle competition and prevent supply from meeting demand, which would result in more expensive food that is poorer in quality.
  • Calls to introduce a sugar tax are also misguided - Not only would it do little to deter individuals from buying unhealthy items but low income households that pay a higher proportion of their income on food and drink would be hit particularly hard.
  • Obesity and diabetes have gone up while sugar consumption has fallen - Claims that sugar consumption and poor health go hand in hand are uncompelling as patterns of obesity and diabetes have not followed patterns of sugar consumption. Despite a sharp rise in diabetes and obesity in the UK in recent decades, sugar consumption per capita has been on the decline since the 1970s, with Britons now consuming a fifth less sugar.
  • The belief that food companies are deliberately manufacturing addictive products is false - The popularity of certain foods is determined by gaps in the market and creative marketing campaigns. Sugar is not addictive and there is little about the chemical makeup of sugar to suggest that it is particularly conducive to food addiction.
  • An extensive choice of healthy alternatives exists for all consumers – A wide range of fresh food is available within walking distance in almost all urban areas in the UK. Even in poorer urban areas, individuals have access to many low-fat and reduced sugar options, including fresh fruit and veg. There is no evidence of ‘food deserts’ in the UK.
  • Traffic lighting food products is unhelpful - Calls to ‘traffic light’ the nutritional status of food products are misguided. Not only would such a labelling system result in items such as cheese receiving a ‘red light’ for levels of fat and salt, but this model ignores the important fact that it is diet, not a particular ingredient, that matters.

Commenting on the report, its co-author, Rob Lyons, journalist and columnist for the online magazine, Spiked, said:

“The justification for excessive government intervention in the sugar market simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Not only is the link between sugar consumption and health issues such as obesity and diabetes weak but the belief that the market falls short when it comes to providing healthy alternatives and adequate product information is simply not true.

“Rather than targeting one specific ingredient, health campaigners should focus their efforts on what matters – providing individuals with the best available information about what constitutes a balanced diet and allowing people to decide for themselves when it comes to what food to eat.”

Notes to editors:

To arrange an interview (live or pre-recorded) with an IEA spokesperson, please contact Camilla Goodwin, Communications Officer at cgoodwin@iea.org.uk or on 0207 799 8920/ 07821 971 443 or Stephanie Lis, Head of Communications at slis@iea.org.uk or on 0207 799 8909/ 07766 221 268.

Sweet Truth – Is there a market failure in sugar?, by Rob Lyons and Christopher Snowdon, can be downloadedhere.

In May 2013, the IEA also published The Proof of the Pudding: Denmark’s fat tax fiasco by Christopher Snowdon, which found that fat taxes would increase the cost of living for UK families.

The mission of the Institute of Economic Affairs is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems.

 The IEA is a registered educational charity and independent of all political parties.

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