When George Osborne announced in March’s Budget that some sugary soft drinks are to be taxed from 2018, it was met with surprise in most quarters but welcomed by many healthcare professionals and campaigners.
In essence, the tax will apply to companies that produce soft drinks containing more than a teaspoon of added sugar per 100ml. Using two measures, the levy will impose an 8p increase on cans of drinks containing more than 8g of sugar per 100ml, while those with above 5g per 100ml will attract approximately 6p of tax per can.
But what do dentists working at the coalface think of the impending change? To find out, at Practice Plan’s bi-annual Insights Panel meeting just a few days later, four well-respected dentists, all working within different areas of dentistry, shared their views on the sugar tax.
Kicking off the discussion, Petros Mylonas, who is undertaking Academic Dental Core Training in oral and maxillofacial surgery as well as working in a private practice setting, addressed where the revenue would be spent.
He said: ‘Putting the money into schools to get kids healthier is great but it doesn’t address decaying children’s teeth. We should be investing in local intervention, perhaps getting dentists to visit schools and educate children on oral health and dietary advice.’
Petros further remarked: ‘If you are going to drink sugary pop or eat sugary foods, adding tax doesn’t stop you. You end up, like in the States, with the sugar content being replaced by high-fructose corn syrup.
‘I’m against the tax because it’s not going to do anything other than fill the coffers of the Chancellor.’
Judith Husband, a dentist working in a prison setting, felt very differently, stating: ‘I am passionately in favour of this. It is too little too late, though. I think we really need to question what we are trying to achieve.
‘I don’t think it’s about how much money we’re getting or even where it’s spent. I think it’s a way of raising the profile of the issue, letting people see what 25 spoonfuls of sugar actually look like.
‘It will hopefully become socially unacceptable to have a three-year-old walking around holding one of these drinks, just as it is to smoke indoors or in your car. It’s also a massive smoke screen for the Chancellor, but I’ll take my wins where I can get them.’
Referring back to Petros’ comment regarding the revenue spend, Judith continued: ‘We’ve got a couple of years before the tax comes in and so time to work on exactly where the money goes. Just because it is going to be spent in schools, it doesn’t necessarily discount oral health and general health promotion. We all know that you can’t exercise out a bad diet. We can all start to have this conversation, even arguing where the money is going to be spent.’
Meanwhile, Eddie Crouch, who is a wet-fingered dentist in two NHS practices in Birmingham, was rather more cynical, observing that: ‘It’s not going to be a win if you see that three-year-old child swapping a can of carbonated, sugary liquid for an untaxed fruit smoothie that has as much sugar in it. Chocolate flavoured milk isn’t going to be taxed, either. The whole policy is rubbish.’
Agreeing with Eddie in part, Judith interjected: ‘It was always going to be “rubbish”, but at least there’s something there that we can build on.’
To this Eddie responded: ‘I disagree with you. This money should go into prevention for dentistry. We should get a bit of it. We’re getting nothing.’
Chiming in, Paul Worskett, an NHS dentist running a prototype practice, said: ‘There should be legislation to limit the amount of sugar in foods.’
In response to this Judith stated: ‘The pro-sugar lobby was too strong to allow that to happen.’
Paul continued: ‘I also think it is disappointing that all the hype around the tax is focused on diabetes and obesity. General anaesthesia on kids is largely down to tooth decay and it’s ignored by the media.’
Judith disagreed with Paul’s point about the media, declaring there to be a strong narrative on tooth decay in children in the UK.
Continuing the discussion regarding the concern expressed about children needing to be hospitalised for caries, Petros maintained: ‘The majority of children seen in hospital is a direct result of tooth decay and a tax won’t decrease that. It may dissuade patients initially but they’ll find another way to get their fix.’
Looking to place the sugar tax in context, Judith said: ‘We know caries is a socio-economic issue – more so than a health issue – so we have to get real. Certainly the work with Jamie Oliver in the dental sector generated a great level of interest because everyone can relate to dentistry. Everyone has had a toothache or some other dentally-related niggle at some point.
‘Ultimately it’s about encouraging people to achieve a healthy balance with their diet.’
Petros agreed with Judith’s sentiment, voicing that: ‘We should be educating people and letting them lead their own lives.’
Echoing this idea and closing the discussion, Judith asserted: ‘We need fair labelling. If we tell people how many spoonfuls of sugar there is in something, then that’s a very powerful message.’
You can watch a clip from Jamie’s Sugar Rush where sugary drink-loving six-year-old Mario has decayed teeth extracted in hospital at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oj9CRK26DIo.