‘Sin taxes' can help to curb chronic disease, study finds

Poorer members of society are most likely to benefit from taxes on soft drinks, alcohol and tobacco, experts claim.

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 controversial sugar tax on soft drinks comes into force in the UK on Friday.

The tax is designed to hit manufacturers rather than consumers, but is likely to lead to price rises. Any drink containing more than 5g of sugar per 100ml will incur a levy of 18p per litre. The tax goes up to 24p per litre if the sugar content is over 8g per 100ml.

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 decreased by 17% in lower income groups, but hardly changed among the better off.

Other research found that in the UK, 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.

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

“Responding to this challenge means big investments to improve health care systems worldwide, but there are immediate and effective tools at our disposal.

“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 strongly challenged by Christopher Snowdon from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

He said: “The claim that poor people disproportionately benefit from these taxes is absurd.

“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.

“There is precious little evidence that poor people benefit from being taxed. On the contrary, sin taxes drive them further into poverty.”

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