Sweets and soda drinks are often blamed for rising rates of obesity the whole world over, but who should pay the price for the resulting health problems? just-food.com's Bernice Hurst takes a look at the arguments for and against using taxes to control consumption of the sugar snacks.

The use of taxation to artificially increase prices on selected products and, ostensibly, to restrict their sales by alerting people to their potential dangers (i.e. making consumers think twice before purchasing them), is not a new idea. Alcohol, tobacco and confectionery have been made more expensive over the years by treasury departments looking for ways to collect revenue from their users rather than linking higher taxes to the general population.

This method has gone some way to appeasing lobbyists who claim that the very idea that such products could be harmful is so much unconfirmed poppycock. And also to appeasing manufacturers who deny any dietary responsibility for what they offer in the marketplace on the grounds that customers may choose to buy or not, and are therefore responsible for their own health.

In the UK, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise (HMCE) department's public notice on foodstuff decides which foods should be taxed on the basis that "a product is considered to be food for VAT purposes if the average person, knowing what it is and how it is used, would consider it to be food". It goes on to say that "the term would therefore include products eaten as part of a meal, or as a snack" however confectionery, chocolate covered biscuits and snacks are standard rated, or taxable, because "they are normally eaten with the fingers" which presumably means that they are not really "food" as defined by HMCE.

Looked at another way, although this is not specified, what it boils down to is separating the staff of life from the little luxuries and comforts we choose as treats or consolation.

Nanny state or preventive medicine?

Now, though, a new twist is being added to the definition of "food". If it seems that consuming large volumes of high sugar content items may lead to long-term physical damage, which then might put added pressure on, for instance, the health service, those products become fair game for the tax collector. We are taxed for our own good but also to prevent future pressure on public services.

In the US, California state senator Deborah Ortiz has had widespread media coverage for her proposed tax on carbonated soft drinks. Like some of the seven other states that have already imposed similar taxes, Ortiz wants hers to be ring-fenced. Revenue would be distributed between schools (50%), the Department of Health Services for the promotion of nutrition and exercise (25%), and 25% to hospitals, clinics and trauma centres.

Exclusive contracts between schools and manufacturers seem to be common in California. One of Ortiz' objectives is to reward schools abstaining from such arrangements by ensuring that they do not lose out financially.

Meanwhile, in Australia, nutritionist Rosemary Stanton isn't stopping at sugar laden soft drinks. Her campaign proposes a 20% tax on what she refers to broadly as "junk food". Stanton also wants to see the money raised channelled directly into promoting the concept of a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle.

As with American and British children, obesity among young Australians is becoming a national concern which few people dispute. Nor is there much debate about the long-term outcomes. It is now widely accepted that various health problems in adulthood step from childhood obesity. The argument, not surprisingly, resides in the solutions to the problem and who should bear responsibility for creating those larger-than-life sized youngsters.

When "couch potato" is a state of mind

For every argument raised in favour of discouraging children from consuming high levels of sugar, a counter argument can be raised that no single cause can be attributed to the so-called epidemic of obesity. Consequently, no single solution is possible.

Guy Johnson, a nutrition expert called to testify before the California Senate Health and Human Services committee about Deborah Ortiz' bill, declared that the average adolescent consumes only one can of soda each day. Referring to the USDA's most recent soft drink consumption data for schoolchildren, Johnson further claimed that "nearly one-fourth of teens do not drink regular carbonated soft drinks and only 5% consume more than three per day".

Whether this means that no single solution should be tested, because only a comprehensive and coordinated approach can ever hope to achieve success, is a moot point. Those in favour of not implementing single steps, until a holistic policy can be put into place, raise the issue of exercise as a vital part of the equation.

Despite protests from parents, teachers and health workers, schools all over the UK are still seeking permission to sell off sports fields in exchange for much needed cash.

Doctors may not be able to prevent this, but they are seeing the results when overweight, unfit, adults bring their problems to the surgery. In an effort to encourage adults to pursue some form of exercise, many doctors now make arrangements with Community Health Centres, and some privately owned gyms, to offer discounted fees for patients whose GP thinks they might benefit from some well supervised activity.

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As for the children, nursery schools in Glasgow have introduced a keep-fit regime three times each week to tackle obesity in under fives (of whom almost one in ten is now "officially" recognised as falling into that category). According to psychologist Sara Gilbert, however, "the best strategy to go for is a move towards healthier eating and increased exercise which they can carry with them into their future life." Dr Gilbert also advises that rewards should be for good behaviour or habits rather than weight loss. "It is not a good idea," she says, "to use sugary items as treats, as the very fact of using them as a reward can make it more exciting and desirable."

Like many other health-related issues which highlight the divide between rich and poor, even those discounted membership fees are not entirely effectual. Says one family practitioner, those who need it most can't afford to join a gym even if the fee has been reduced. And those who can afford to pay are not the ones most in need of the benefits on offer. Which brings the argument full circle again, back to the question of prevention rather than treatment and who should pay the price. Providing temptation, as snacks frequently do, but without complementary facilities for working off their effects, can result in an imbalance that needs external influences to redress. There may be a case for taxes after all.

By Bernice Hurst, just-food.com correspondent