Should the UK government be taxing products high in salt to improve the nation’s health?

29 June 2022, 08:50 AM
  • Calls for ministers to introduce a levy on high-salt foods from health charities have been ignored, putting Britain’s health at risk according to experts
Should the UK government be taxing products high in salt to improve the nation’s health?

Leading health charities including The British Heart Foundation and Action on Salt have been calling on ministers to bring in a sugar tax-style new levy on the amount of salt in food to reduce heart attacks and strokes, Britain’s biggest killers.

This comes shortly after the government’s official Food Strategy was released, revealing that Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations for a salt tax in the National Food Strategy were ignored.

Henry had suggested that high-salt foods be taxed, with the money raised from this to be spent on addressing the inequalities around food, by expanding free school meals, funding holiday activities and food clubs, and providing healthy food to low-income families.

Commenting on the government’s refusal to implement any kind of levy on high-salt foods, Professor Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Salt, said the move “makes it abundantly clear that our government is in the pocket of the food industry and has no desire to bite the hand that feeds it.

“We can only assume that Sajid Javid has chosen not to implement these tailor-made recommendations for political reasons which completely contradicts the Government’s levelling up ambitions.

“This shambolic decision will no doubt massively impact the NHS and the nation’s health which will suffer the consequences and escalating cost of treating obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and tooth decay (all linked to our very high and unnecessary sugar, salt and saturated fat intakes) that the food industry is entirely responsible for.”

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, chief executive at the British Heart Foundation, added, “Progress in reducing salt in the food we eat has stalled in recent years, and so the government must take lessons from the success of the soft drinks industry levy. We simply must be braver and act now if we’re to overcome this deadly problem.”

The cost-of-living crisis
High-salt foods such as crisps, cereals, processed meat and dairy products are some of the cheapest foods in the supermarkets, and it has been suggested that the cost-of-living crisis will worsen the nation’s health as people with stretched budgets are forced to go for the cheapest option. 

Ben Reynolds, deputy chief executive of food and farming charity Sustain, told Speciality Food, “The cost-of-living crisis is forcing people to opt for cheaper, and often unhealthier, food and drink. This comes at a time that we are also seeing soaring rates of child obesity, with over 40% of children leaving primary school now obese or overweight. 

“So how do we break that junk food cycle and make food and drink healthier? The government would be negligent if it didn’t explore all options to tackle this and help get its aims to halve child obesity back on track.

“Its own interim report on reformulation - one of the best ways to improve the healthiness of what we eat - has shown voluntary action in the industry to be negligible, when compared to measures such as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy which saw the average sugar content of soft drinks fall by 29%.”

Other options for reducing national salt intake
Public Health England revealed that 27% of UK adults’ salt intake comes from meat and meat products, highlighting a need for the nation to eat less but better meat, something Sustain advocates for. 

Ben highlighted that the government should be offering more support to high welfare and sustainable farming practices that produce better meat for the population, rather than highly processed supermarket options. “The National Food Strategy and the Committee on Climate Change have both advised that as a country we reduce our meat intake”, he explained. 

“If as a country we want to shift to eating less cheap, intensively reared meat and dairy, for health and environmental reasons, there may be other more effective ways than introducing salt taxes on highly processed meat products. We would like to see the government support farmers to improve production standards, such as phasing out factory farming, rather than undermine them by striking trade deals that facilitate low-standard food imports.”

He concluded, “There were signs that the market was responding to impending regulation on junk food, but a government u-turn on its own obesity policies might now stifle that innovation. Government should support, not work against, those working to put good, affordable food on people’s tables.”

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