Sugar taxes and MUP: Health groups assess public support

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags sugar tax Uk

The UK public is more receptive to interventions such as sugar taxes and minimum unit pricing than often supposed, according to a report compiled by a group of independent UK health associations.

This year the UK has introduced a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages​ while Scotland has introduced minimum unit pricing​ for alcohol.

In a report compiled for the 70th​ anniversary of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) this month, UK health organisations highlight healthy lifestyles as the most important influence on people’s health, adding that ‘it is essential that national and local government use the levers they have at their disposal – such as tax and regulation – to foster healthy environments’.

It also highlights a perception that the F&B industry carries a lot of responsibility in ensuring people stay generally healthy.

Healthy lifestyles

The report ‘Are we expecting too much from the NHS’​ has been produced by health organisations The Health Foundation, Nuffield Trust and The King’s Fund, along with the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Often described as a ‘national religion’, the NHS was founded in 1948 on the basis of three core principles: healthcare that meets the needs of everyone; is free at the point of delivery; and is based on clinical need, not ability to pay.

However, while people still ‘strongly identify’ with its values; the NHS has to operate with finite resources, and recent polling suggests that people are becoming increasingly concerned about lengthening waiting times and the level of funding provided by government.

With such pressures on the NHS, the report highlights healthy lifestyles as ‘the most important influence on people’s health’. It pinpoints the levers national and local government have at their disposal – such as taxes and regulation – to foster healthy environments.

“New polling suggests that the public are more receptive to such interventions than politicians often suppose”,​ says the report.

Who’s responsible for healthy lifestyles? The F&B industry...

While the report suggests support for government intervention, it also reveals that many people believe the food and drinks industry is responsible for the general health of the nation.

While 97% believe that the individual is responsible for their own health, 75% also believe that the food and drinks industry is responsible for ensuring people stay healthy.

This suggests there is a stronger expectation of responsibility placed on the F&B industry than the government (68% put responsibility on the national government and 55% on local authorities).

NHS report views on responsibility for staying healthy

Sugar taxes and minimum unit pricing

The UK introduced its Soft Drinks Industry Levy in April, taxing beverages with added sugar that contain a total of more than 5g sugar/100 ml. The UK has the highest level of obesity in Western Europe, with childhood obesity a particular concern, and so the levy seeks to target the 'empty calories' found in many soft drinks. 

In May Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce minimum unit pricing after a five year battle through UK and EU courts, setting a minimum price of 50p (68 US cents) per unit in an effort to tackle damage caused by cheap, high strength alcohol.

“Beyond its funding and policy decisions about the NHS, national government makes other decisions that can have an important impact on the health of the population,” ​says the report.

“Decisions over infrastructure, including transport, housing and public services, can be used to promote health.

“Legislation and tax policy can also make a significant difference. The ban on smoking in public places, for example, has led to a significant reduction in the number of people who smoke and changed attitudes towards tobacco consumption.

“In April this year the UK became one of the few countries to introduce a tax on sugary drinks, with the result that manufacturers are reformulating products to reduce the amount of sugar they contain.

“In Scotland, minimum unit pricing for alcohol has been introduced (and the Welsh Government looks set to follow suit).

“Polling conducted by Ipsos MORI for this project suggests the public is more receptive to this type of intervention than governments often assume. For example, 54% of respondents indicated they ‘strongly supported’ or ‘tend to support’ a minimum unit price for alcohol, while 70% indicated they ‘strongly supported’ or ‘tend to support’ limiting fast food outlets near schools.

“There is also net support for other measures which are yet to be introduced, such as banning junk food advertising on television before 9.00pm.”

NHS support or opposition for public health interventions


Source: McKenna H (2018) Are we expecting too much from the NHS?​ London: The King's Fund

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