In this post yesterday, I criticized Plaid Cymru for not publishing any detail about our proposal for a sugary drinks tax or levy. As it happens, this was not entirely our fault because we had produced an article that explained the proposal in much greater detail. We asked the Western Mail to publish it, but they refused to do so.
This is an important policy from a party that might well lead the next Welsh Government after 2016. It impacts on two policy fields which are of crucial importance to Wales.
The first is that we have an obesity crisis that is getting worse. Dr Nadim Haboubi, a consultant at Nevill Hall hospital in Abergavenny and chair of the National Obesity Forum for Wales has said:
[Wales' obesity problem is] huge, massive, worse than England, worse than anywhere in the UK and among the worst in the western world, I would argue. The worst is probably the USA but we're certainly not far behind.
It's a drastic epidemic and it's worsening. It's because of so many reasons, such as inequalities, social deprivation and unemployment.
The second factor is that we have an acute shortage of doctors in Wales. This is from an article in the Daily Post in June:
Call to act now over Wales' doctor shortage crisis
Wales has fewer doctors per head of population than Kazakhstan and Moldova and lies 22nd in a league table of 24 European countries for clinical staff, Plaid Cymru claimed.
Analysis of World Health Organization figures showed Wales had 24 physicians per 10,000 people compared to 38 in Kazakhstan and 36 in Moldova. Only Poland and Romania employed fewer doctors by comparison.
Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said that the Welsh Government had to tackle urgently its doctor recruitment problems if district general hospitals were to function properly. A shortage of clinicians has been a major factor in decisions over where to site specialist services, and were a key consideration in the suggested move of intensive care for premature babies to the Wirral. Ms Wood said: “These figures highlight the long term failure by the Welsh Government to effectively plan for the recruitment of doctors.”
Ceredigion AM Elin Jones said Plaid Cymru propose financial incentives to encourage graduate doctors to stay and work in Wales; investment to encourage talented Welsh students to study medicine; and promotion of Wales as a place to live and work, with increased recruitment from other EU nations. She said: “It is essential that the Welsh Government takes action to increase the number of doctors recruited to Wales. Wales is currently in the EU relegation zone when it comes to the number of doctors.”
Dr Richard Lewis, British Medical Association secretary in Wales, said: “The inadequate number of doctors applies to general practitioner numbers as well as hospital doctors. It is little wonder some patients find difficulty in accessing appointments in general practice. The answer isn’t in asking more of the already stretched GP numbers, but in increasing the GP workforce to adequate levels.”
To which I would add that decisions like the one to downgrade Accident and Emergency services at Llanelli from a doctor-led service to a nurse-led service, as reported here, would not be necessary if we did not have a such a shortage of doctors.
It amazes me that the Western Mail should refuse to publish details of a policy that would make a big difference in two areas which are of such major concern to the Welsh public. It speaks volumes about the paucity of serious news coverage in Wales. The editors and proprietors of Western Mail should, quite frankly, be ashamed of themselves. It is blatant political bias which, on this occasion, allowed Carwyn Jones to both blatantly misrepresent our policy and claim that we had been "entirely silent" about it. We weren't silent, we were gagged.
This is the article that we asked the Western Mail to publish, which is has now been put up on the Plaid Cymru website:
Leanne Wood on the sugary drinks levy
A Plaid Cymru government in 2016 would have tax powers if the recommendations of the Silk Commission’s first report are implemented.
The Silk Commission says that Welsh Government should be able to adopt new and innovative taxes, particularly those with policy ‘nudge’ implications, like our proposed sugary drinks tax.
We have long had ‘nudge’ taxes to reduce consumption of tobacco and alcohol products and our sugary drinks tax should also be considered a public health issue.
Across the former coalfields of the south, more than 60% of the population are overweight. Excess calories contribute to weight increase. Rising levels of type 2 diabetes suggests a further link with sugary products.
Although innovative in Wales, taxing sugary drinks is not unique. The majority of US states have some form of ‘soda excise tax’ while Finland and Hungary both tax these products. A new tax was introduced in France last year and the Republic of Ireland has been considering the idea for some time.
According to the British Soft Drinks Association, an average of 227 litres of soft drinks is consumed per person per year. 39% of these are ‘regular’ drinks compared with 61% which are low calorie or no added sugar products. However, products with no added sugar can still be high in sugar, and can often contain other ingredients which are not good for you in excess, such as caffeine or aspartame.
The BSDA distinguish between a range of products. These include carbonated drinks (such as cola drinks), dilutables (such as squash), fruit juice and smoothies, still and juice drinks, energy and sports drinks (with energy drinks in particular often having large quantities of both sugar and caffeine), as well as bottled water.
61% of carbonated drinks consumed are considered ‘regular’ sugary drinks alongside 24% of dilutables and 58% of still and juice drinks.
Final details for a sugary drinks tax would be ironed out in consultation and legislation, of course. Plaid Cymru would consider the inclusion of all drinks which include additional sugar, as well as those which are high in natural sugars such as fruit juices and smoothies.
The Party of Wales believes that fruit juices and smoothies cause no problems when drunk in moderation, and will consider whether a full or reduced level of tax should be levied.
Our proposals are for a 20p per litre tax on sugary drinks (broadly 7p on a 330ml can, or 10p on a 500ml bottle).
We propose a tax on volume rather than price for two reasons. A tax on price would allow supermarkets to absorb the increase into the standard cost or discount bulk purchases, removing its impact. A tax on volume ensures consistency of pricing structure. Plaid Cymru considered whether a tax per gram of sugar should be implemented and concluded that this approach will be too complicated to introduce in the short term but should be re-considered at a later date.
Wales drinks approximately 306 million litres of sugared drinks, with a further 58 million litres of fruit juice and smoothies. At the full 20p tax rate on these, the take would be around £72.8 million or £61.2 million not including fruit juice and smoothies.
The overall aim is for public health rather than to raise tax revenues. In France, where the tax rate of 7c per litre was introduced, there was an immediate 3.3% sales drop. Using a higher tax rate, closer to that we suggest, academics estimate an elasticity of demand of around 8-10% for soft drinks.
Assuming a full 10% fall in sugared drink consumption, the tax take would be around £65.5m or £55m without fruit juices and smoothies.
The public health effect due to reduced consumption, based on models in the similarly sized Republic of Ireland, would be to reduce obesity by 10,000 people. In total, 15,000 people would no longer be overweight – with all of the related healthcare complications that being obese or overweight create.
Plaid Cymru is committed to the introduction of 1,000 additional doctors to Wales. Currently, Wales has fewer doctors per head than almost every other country in the European Union and fewer than any other country in the UK.
Wales requires a range of doctors – with different grades and specialisms. Taking the median mid-point pay scale for various types of doctors would give an average wage for a consultant of around £82,000 p.a., general practitioners £70,000 p.a., associate specialists £62,000 and junior doctors around £33,000. There are further on-costs relating to employers’ NI and pension contributions in particular.
Assuming a mix, for example, of 100 consultants, 300 GPs, 200 associate specialists and 400 junior doctors and allowing for 20% for additional on-costs this would be around £66m.
Of course, this would not have to be funded from a hypothecated health tax. Incremental increases in doctor numbers could also be met by providing for an increase in the budget each year. An extra £13m per year over 5 years within the budget for a health priority should not be a problem. Savings from the £50m per year spent on agency and locum staff should also be possible if we have better staffing numbers and availability.
These are bold, innovative and ambitious Plaid Cymru policies. The Welsh Government says that we can’t do it. We say that we can.
That ‘can do’ attitude and ambition to improve Wales is why Plaid Cymru must be the next Welsh Government.