Sweet nothings


Is the Government’s Sugar Tax all style and no substance? 

Andrew O'Brien

I’ve often wondered if there’s any point in the general public worrying themselves about what’s in the Budget. Chances are what they Government giveth with one hand, the Revenue will taketh with another, and there ain’t much we can do to stop them. This year though, I decided to take a peek at one thing in particular: the Sugar Tax.
The Government announced that they will piggyback somewhat on the UK’s plan to bring in a tax on soft drinks. In a move described by the Irish Heart Foundation as ‘a landmark day in the fight against obesity’, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will introduce a tax of 30 cents per litre on drinks with over eight grams of sugar per 100 millilitres, and a reduced rate of 20 cent per litre on drinks with between five and eight grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. It is estimated that the tax could raise up to €40 million per year.
I’m not going to go on one of my rants here – the last thing the editorial staff need is complaint letters criticising the guy who says maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree with sugar taxes. Let’s just say I’m concerned that in order to avoid the tax but keep drinks sweet, manufacturers will need to use something other than sugar. But what? Is a chemical compound made to appear sweet any healthier than a natural substance that actually is sweet?
At time of writing, we had no indication as to where the revenue raised by such a tax will go. If the Ministers for Finance and Health are serious about improving our health, then the proceeds need to go directly into health education and promotion. Last year, the Minister for Health produced ‘A Healthy Weight for Ireland: Obesity Policy and Action Plan’, an 80-odd page document with the goal of correcting the obesity crisis over the next decade. In last year’s budget it was announced that €5 million of funding would be provided to Healthy Ireland for the purpose of implementing the action plan.
I read the rather wordy ‘A Healthy Weight for Ireland’,  and there are some good ideas in there, as well as an acceptance that for such a plan to work we will need input from the government down, but also from the individual up. But – and I find this ridiculous – no further funding has been allocated to achieving the goals set out.
Of course, the Department of Health and HSE oversee a reasonable amount of the initiatives for managing overweight and obesity, and their budgets have been increased, but surely we could be allocating some, if not all, of the money raised from a sugar tax directly to the very issue the tax is supposed to be addressing.
A total of €5 million was allocated last year – that’s about €1.10 per head of the Irish population. Now obviously some funding will overlap, but €1.10? Hardly worth the hassle, especially when there’s bound to be several staff members in Healthy Ireland getting paid out of that €5 million.
My suggestion to any government minister with influence over health funding and policy is a simple one: take every penny that is raised by the sugar tax and put it into school and community-based initiatives to improve health and physical-activity levels. The HSE is a veritable black hole of money, so keep this money away from there and give it to projects that will make a difference on the ground. We have seen the benefits of such things around Mayo, with the Greenway and other walking and cycling trails around the county.
What about a Jamie Oliver-inspired Ministry of Food? Find a group of people in every community and teach healthy cooking, then have those people teach their family and friends. Introduce the Mile a Day initiative to primary schools. Put more funding into niche interests like the scouts. Mainstream sports like the GAA and rugby do a great job of keeping kids active, but they also get a lot of funding. Some kids will never take to those sports, so why not put a bit more into other activities that will still keep kids involved and active?
The possibilities are endless and cheap, but they will never work if the money doesn’t get to where it needs to go.

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.