U.K.’s Johnson Rejects Idea of Extra Taxes on Unhealthy Food

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he’s “not attracted” to the idea of extra taxes on food, after a review called for a broad levy on sugar and salt sales as poor diets hurt the economy and people’s health.

The government-commissioned National Food Strategy urged Britain to introduce the world’s first sugar and salt reformulation tax, and use some of the proceeds to expand free school meals and support diets in deprived communities. It stopped short on recommending a levy on meat, while calling for measures to cut its consumption by 30% in the next decade.

“I am not, I must say, attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hardworking people, let me just signal that,” Johnson told reporters in Coventry, England. “But I will study his report with interest.”

Britain is facing an array of food challenges -- from a growing obesity problem to concerns about providing the poorest children with nutritious food -- and has already introduced a tax on sugar in soft drinks. At the same time, the country is trying to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment, while redrawing global trade relations in the wake of Brexit.

U.K.’s Johnson Rejects Idea of Extra Taxes on Unhealthy Food

“The way we produce food is doing terrible damage to the environment and to our bodies, and putting an intolerable strain” on the National Health Service, said Henry Dimbleby, the review’s lead author. “Covid-19 has been a painful reality check. Our high obesity rate has been a major factor in the U.K.’s tragically high death rate.”

The strategy published Thursday is the second part of the study, which is billed as the first major review of British food in 75 years.

Poor diets contribute to about 64,000 deaths every year in England alone and cost the economy 74 billion pounds ($103 billion) a year, the equivalent of cutting the U.K.’s gross domestic product by 3.4%.

Health Measures

Johnson, who was hospitalized with Covid-19 last year and blamed his weight for the severity of his disease, has made a turnaround from his stance against the “nanny state” by pushing a set of anti-obesity measures.

Government proposals in May called for junk food commercials to be banned on British television before 9 p.m. and outlawed completely online. Promotions like “buy one get one free” on high fat, salt and sugar food and drinks will be restricted in supermarkets from next April.

The tax recommended by the National Food Strategy would charge 3 pounds per kilogram of sugar and 6 pounds per kilogram of salt sold wholesale, for use in processed foods, in restaurants and the catering sector, Dimbleby’s review said. That would encourage manufacturers to change recipes or reduce portion sizes, and could raise 2.9 billion to 3.4 billion pounds a year for state coffers.

Cutting meat consumption would help the U.K. reduce greenhouse gas emissions and free up land for capturing carbon, according to the review.

Still, a meat tax would be “politically impossible,” and the government would be better off nudging consumers to change their eating habits, while investing in measures such as reducing methane emissions from cattle or developing alternative proteins, the report showed. It also called for a 1 billion-pound investment in innovation to create a better food system.

Other recommendations:
  • Food companies with more than 250 employees should be required to disclose sales of fruit, vegetables, protein and products high in fat, sugar or salt.
  • The government should guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029 to help farmers switch to more sustainable land use.
  • Define minimum food standards for trade and a mechanism for protecting them.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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