British Hospital Cafes Are Introducing a Tax on Sugary Drinks

In a bid to tackle Britain's growing obesity problem, NHS chief executive Simon Stevens has announced a 20 percent levy on all sugary drinks and foods sold in NHS cafes.

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Jan 18 2016, 1:00pm

Photo via Flickr user _ Liquid

With two thirds of Britons now classified as dangerously overweight, the UK's growing "obesity crisis" is rarely out of the headlines. Of the many government measures proposed to curb the nation's waistlines, a so-called "sugar tax" on sweetened drinks and snacks has gained widespread support—endorsed by public health bodies, independent advisory committees, and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

While some food outlets and local authorities such as Brighton and Hove City Council have introduced voluntary levies on sweetened food and drink, the British government is yet to implement an official tax. Speaking at a press conference earlier this month, Prime Minister David Cameron said that he was against "having to resort to taxes" in combatting Britain's obesity problem, but recognised the need for "a fully worked up programme" to reduce sugar consumption.

READ MORE: Brighton Just Became the First British City to Tax Sugary Drinks

This week, the National Health Service (NHS) became the latest institution to implement its own sugar tax. Speaking to the Guardian, NHS chief executive Simon Stevens proposed a 20 percent levy on all sugary drinks and foods sold in NHS cafes.

He said: "Because of the role that the NHS occupies in national life, all of us working in the NHS have a responsibility not just to support those who look after patients, but also to draw attention to and make the case for some of the wider changes that will actually improve the health of this country."

The proposed levy would make the NHS the first public body in Britain to implement a sugar tax. Initially only applying to sugary drinks, Stevens said that the levy would be gradually enforced as catering contracts in NHS hospitals come up for renewal over the next three to five years.

Stevens also urged MPs to take similar action, adding his support of a nationwide levy to that of other health officials including Public Health England, which called for a 20 percent sugar tax and restrictions on junk food advertising last year.

READ MORE: The British Government Is Under Even More Pressure to Tax Sugary Drinks

Stevens added that the tax would be expected to raise £20 to £40 million a year towards the NHS workforce. He explained: "It's not just the wellbeing of people in this country and our children. But it's also the sustainability of the NHS itself."

While the levy has been welcomed by campaign groups such as Action on Sugar, others have questioned the idea. Speaking to the BBC, Chris Snowdon of free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs said: "Taxing soft drinks, no matter where they are purchased, hits the poorest hardest and has never been shown to reduce obesity anywhere in the world."

The NHS plans to introduce the sugar tax by 2020—its impact on Britain's obesity problem remaining to be seen.