‘Sin taxes’ on soft drinks and snacks help poorest, says study

So-called “sin taxes” on soft drinks, alcohol, and tobacco, could be a powerful tool for combating rising rates of chronic disease worldwide, researchers claim.

A global study found taxes on soft drinks, snacks, alcohol, and tobacco are more likely to change the lifestyle behaviour of vulnerable poorer consumers.

At the same time, most of the tax revenues would come from higher-income households.

Poorer sections of society are disproportionately affected by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) linked to lifestyle, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, said the authors.

NCDs were described as a “major cause and consequence” of poverty.

The findings, from a series of articles published in The Lancet medical journal, were reported shortly before a sugar tax on soft drinks comes into force in Britain today. Its introduction in Ireland has been delayed until at least May 1.

The tax is designed to hit manufacturers rather than consumers, but is likely to lead to price rises.

A task force of experts appointed by The Lancet gathered data from 13 countries around the world, all with large poor populations.

In one example, the authors cited the introduction of a soft drinks tax in Mexico which resulted in an average 4.2 litre reduction in consumption per person in 2014.

Soft drink purchases fell by 17% in lower income groups, but hardly changed among the better off.

Other research found that, in Britain, not one of the 13 countries assessed, the response to the possible introduction of a minimum price for alcohol was likely to be 7.6 times larger in poorer households than in the richest.

Rachel Nugent, from the non-profit institute RTI International in Seattle, who chaired The Lancet Taskforce on NCDs and Economics, said: “Non-communicable diseases are a major cause and consequence of poverty worldwide.

“Taxes on unhealthy products can produce major health gains, and the evidence shows these can be implemented fairly, without disproportionately harming the poorest in society.”

However, the findings were challenged by Christopher Snowdon of Britain’s Institute of Economic Affairs.

“The claim that poor people disproportionately benefit from these taxes is absurd,” he said. 

“Sugar taxes have not reduced obesity rates anywhere in the world and smoking is much more prevalent among the poor than among the rich, despite decades of high taxes on tobacco.”

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