Tipping the scales

With Budget 2013 on the horizon, Nicole Casey looks at the proposed sugar tax and whether it can save us from rising levels of obesityObesity is a term lightly thrown around, but rarely comprehended by those of us who haven’t been directly affected by it. However, it is an ever growing problem, and has reached an all-time high in Ireland. According to the World Health Organisation, obesity in 2007 reached a 41% prevalence level in males aged 18-44, with a 57% figure for females of the same age group.Adults aren’t the only Irish people suffering at the hands of weight problems, however. Lack of education about healthy eating, along with reduced focus on physical education means Irish children are becomingly increasingly susceptible to early weight gain and eventual obesity. The number of children significantly overweight has more than trebled in the past decade, reaching over 300,000 in Ireland alone. With 22% of Irish children seriously at risk, and an additional 10,000 children becoming overweight or obese every year, what are we actually doing to stop this spread of unhealthy eating habits?In an effort to curb the rising levels of obesity in Ireland, Minister for Health James Reilly has recommended the introduction of a “sugar tax” in the upcoming December budget. This tax, the recommendation for which arose from a confidential report commissioned by Minister Reilly, would see an increase in the excise duty on fizzy drinks. A 23% VAT rate is already in place on fizzy drinks, with a possible increase of 10% in excise duty occurring after the budget is published. Realistically, this means a fizzy drink that previously cost €1.23 will rise to €1.33.Andrew Phelan, a Sports Studies & Physical Education graduate who works with second level students, agrees with the proposed tax: “There [has been] a complete lack of political will to do anything about [obesity] in Ireland. The refusal of the government to implement… a tax on the companies producing and selling junk food… has played a role in the increase in childhood obesity.”However, not everyone is as supportive of the proposed tax. The Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC) fears the implementation of such a tax will result in job losses and an inevitable backlash from the drinks industry in Ireland. Commenting on the issue, Food and Drink Industry Ireland (FDII) Director Paul Kelly said: "Fiscal measures specifically aimed at altering behaviour are complex to design and can be highly unpredictable… An additional tax on sugar or soft drinks would leave Irish consumers out of pocket, paying one of the highest tax rates in Europe. The impact would be highly regressive, with a disproportionate impact on low-income families that spend a higher proportion of income on food.” Rather, IBEC and FDII believe that the government would be better to focus their efforts on a campaign of consumer awareness, increased focus on physical activity, and a programme of childhood education.While there is a clear link between fizzy drinks and weight problems, the link between a higher tax leading to a reduction in consumption is unclear. Much like “the old reliables” of alcohol and cigarettes, tax might not actually affect consumption of fizzy drinks, and sales may possibly stay at a level consistent to present figures. Denmark, who only recently implemented a similar initiative, have already disbanded the tax as authorities found it to have no direct effect on consumers spending patterns.Alternatively, companies manufacturing soft drinks may choose to bear the incidence of the tax in an attempt to ensure sales figures continue at a growing rate. Although the government aim for the impact of the tax to be on the consumers, manufacturers can somewhat overrule this, similar to companies who did not pass on the recent VAT increase to consumers, choosing instead to bear the burden themselves.While there is no official measure for childhood obesity in Ireland at present, the number of children considered to be excessively overweight is continuously rising, which is exceedingly worrying. Weight problems originating during childhood are often carried into adulthood, and sadly, it has never been easier for children to become overweight or in danger of becoming obese.Although we are currently experiencing a recession, it seems children have never had more disposable income. Fizzy drinks and sugary confectionary are easily available and cheap enough for children to afford. Shops are busiest at the end of the school day, and a weekly “treat day” has become a staple term in every child’s vocabulary. Healthy eating plans are no longer as strongly implemented in schools, both primary and secondary, and the numbers of students engaging in physical activity is consistently falling. Phelan explains: “There are cuts to all school and education budgets, instead of the investment that is needed in sports, and education on the importance of healthy eating and exercise.”With Budget 2013 set to be just as frugal as previous years, is a sugar tax really going to be the policy that saves our economy as well as our increasingly overweight population? It seems unlikely that a tax which has already failed in other countries would be a success in the Irish economy, but only time will tell. Perhaps, coupled with an increased focus on early childhood education, Minister Reilly’s sugar tax could actually have a chance at success.