Minister defends controversial sugar tax

Critics argue a sugar tax would increase the consumption of artificially sweetened foods which also have associated health risks

The government is hoping to reduce the amount of sugar Danes consume by taxing sugar in a manner similar to last year’s introduction of a saturated fat tax.

Defending the proposal Monday night on public broadcaster DR's news programme Deadline, the acting health minister, Pia Olsen Dyhr, said that the sugar tax would encourage Danes to move to healthier foods while also raising money that could be invested in the public health system.

Questions remain, however, over whether the tax would lead people to simply consume more products containing artificial sweeteners, which some studies have demonstrated can cause diabetes and increase the risk of stroke.

"There seems to be a portion of society who become hungry from experiencing a sweet taste without sugar entering the bloodstream, and that could make people eat more of the wrong food to tackle the hunger,” Arne Astrup professor in nutrition at the University of Copenhagen, said on the programme. “There are also studies that show an increased risk of strokes from consuming these artificial sweeteners."

Dyhr said she could not respond to these allegations and that the government would have to commission a study to see if consumers would really simply seek out artificially sweetened products if sugar were taxed.

Further criticism of both the sugar and fat the tax arrived from Joan Preisler, a health consultant for supermarket group FDB.

"Those who will be hit hardest are those without much money, and that’s because people won’t immediately change our habits. Meat will still be the focus of their meal, and by not cutting down on that, they simply end up with less money to buy the healthier food,” Preisler said. "The people who are the most in need of becoming healthier are going to be hit hard by this tax and are not going to become healthier."

Dyhr admitted that it was problematic that the people who suffered the greatest health risks associated with overconsumption of sugar and fat were also society’s poorest. But she added that the taxes would prove an opportunity for consumers to find healthier alternatives in their diet by buying chicken instead of sausages, for instance.

“We need to get to the core of the issue which is that we have a health challenge in Denmark, not only with tobacco and alcohol, but also with sugar and fat and we also need to exercise more,” Dyhr said. “If we just sit around and don't do anything about it, the statistics will show that Danes will continue to die earlier than people in neighbouring countries.”

Critics of both the sugar and fat taxes have argued that they are stealth taxes designed to prop up the state’s finances in times of economic hardship.

The sugar tax may also lead to an exodus of Danish workplaces, as businesses who produce sugary products have said they will struggle to continue to turn a profit in Denmark and will seek to move their operations to cheaper countries abroad.

One such company is Fynbo foods, who told online newspaper Den Korte Avis that 60 employees at a marmalade factory near Hjørring risk losing their jobs as a result of the tax.

“If a tax of this level is introduced it will definitely affect demand and thereby employment,” Fynbo’s quality manager, Richard Fynbo, told the newspaper.

While the effect on employment was not addressed during the programme, Dyhr added that the sugar tax was important for changing the Danish diet for the better.

“We know levies work. We have seen with the water levy that Danes use much less water, and the same with energy and other areas," she said. "We know they are a good instrument and we want to use them to make sure Danes eat less sugar because it’s bad for their health."