Science - March 24, 2016

Too soon for sugar tax in the Netherlands

Koen Guiking

Last week the British government announced a tax on sugary soft drinks. Almost simultaneously, the Dutch Health minister Schippers produced her ‘road map’ for healthier food in Europe through self-regulation by the industry. Charon Zondervan, leader of the Healthy & delicious foods programme at Food and Biobased Research, can see why the Netherlands is not opting for a sugar tax at present.

Mexico is already doing it, the UK is going to do it. Should the Netherlands slap a tax on sugar too?

‘In the Netherlands we have a ‘polder tradition’. So in 2014, for example, food producers and distributers, such as supermarkets and caterers, agreed to reduce amounts of salt, calories and saturated fats in products. They don’t have that polder culture in the UK, so it is up to the government there to decide: either we do nothing or we pass legislation. What is more, the need is quite a bit greater in England than in the Netherlands. More soft drinks are consumed there and overweight is more prevalent.’

Couldn’t the Netherlands speed up the self-regulation by raising the prospect of a sugar tax?

‘You can’t make an agreement with the branch organizations in good faith on the one hand, and then say: if you don’t reach the targets we are going to impose a tax. That is not part of the Dutch polder process. The food industry is now getting the chance to cut down on salt, fat and sugar levels. If in a few years’ time another minister thinks not enough progress has been made, we can make new agreements, possibly using a tax or legislation as a stick.’

What do you think of the British tax?

‘I find it interesting that the revenue from the tax is going to be used to promote sport in schools. So taxing “the bad” is directly linked to investing in “the good”. That should be done more often. Taxes on cigarettes or petrol in the Netherlands just disappear into the treasury. It is not clear what is done with the extra money you have to spend on doing something “bad”.

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