Simon Nicholas Williams: Big Food could take the fizz out of Jamie Oliver’s soft drink tax

simon_williamsIn his new documentary, Sugar Rush [airing tonight], Jamie Oliver pledges to “be a pain in the arse to the government” on the issue of soft drink taxes. Unfortunately for Oliver, and for the health of those he seeks to help, compared to the enormous political influence the food and beverage industry can and will exert over such issues, his campaign is likely to be little more than a mild discomfort.

Of course, the government should listen to Oliver’s call for a 20p per litre levy on sugar-sweetened soft drinks. The average Briton is still buying twice as many fizzy drinks as they are bottled waters. Sales of sports and energy drinks have trebled since 2000. Over the same period, rates of obesity and diabetes have also increased. Sports and energy drinks promise to be to the obesity issue what “light” cigarettes were to the smoking issue: compositionally similar products (in this case sugar-based drinks) that are implied in their marketing as being “healthier.” However, like “Big Tobacco,” the food and drink industry has at its disposal a number of strategies to either squash tax proposals or compromise their effectiveness. For example, in the United States, as the proposal for taxing sugary drinks began to gather steam around 2008, the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and the American Beverage Association increased their spending to roughly $40 million, more than 30 times what they had spent just a few years earlier. If Oliver’s campaign gathers momentum, we can no doubt expect a spike in industry spending on anti-tax lobbying in the UK.

Even if David Cameron does, as Oliver hopes, do a U-turn and a sugar tax is successfully passed, there will be a number of ways that the industry could look to take the fizz out of its potential impact. As has been the case with tobacco industry, it is not uncommon for companies to “undershift” a tax by temporarily reducing their profit margins to keep overall tax-inclusive retail prices relatively stable, thus buffering the potential loss of consumer demand for that product.

Under Oliver’s proposal, an estimated £1bn per year could be earmarked to support preventative strategies in the NHS and in schools around obesity and diet-related disease. Beyond this the government could get really creative with the revenue generated from sugar taxes. It could, for example, be used not just to combat the obesity problem, but also the UK’s growing food insecurity problem.

Health advocates in the United States are exploring the idea of using earmarked revenue from sugar taxes to fund “double dollar” initiatives for fruit and vegetables at farmers’ markets and selected food stores. A portion of the revenue generated from Oliver’s proposed tax could be used to offset welfare cuts and support food bank initiatives focused on fresh foods.

Oliver’s current campaign is he quipped his “Empire Strikes Back.” However, unless we continue to shed light on the ways in which the food and drink industry exerts political influence, we may be unlikely to see a Return of the Culinary Jedi to the “war on sugar.”

Simon Williams is research assistant professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Northwestern University, Chicago, USA. His new book, co-edited with Professor Marion Nestle, is “Big Food: Critical perspectives on the global growth of the food and beverage industry.

I declare that that I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and I have no relevant interests to declare.