New study provides ‘robust evidence’ that sugar tax effective health measure

Researchers concluded that such fiscal interventions can be a "useful and effective tool for improving the population’s diet." [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Soft drinks manufacturers in the UK have lowered the sugar levels in their drinks after the government introduced the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) in April 2018 to help combat childhood obesity and related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, researchers have found.

The study, carried out by researchers from several UK top Universities and funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), found that changes in drink formulation brought about by the SDIL have been “much greater” than those achieved by voluntary industry initiatives.

Sugary drinks taxes have been named as a key measure by the World Health Organisation to tackle a number of health conditions. However, industry has criticised this stance in the past for lacking concrete evidence that taxation is an effective intervention.

Industry questions WHO's conviction about health impact of sugar taxes

The industry believes that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has no evidence to back its claim that sugar taxes are an effective way to improve public health. Instead, the industry says, taxes only lead consumers to cheaper brands with similar or even higher calorie content, which may undermine any positive health outcome.

The researchers assessed a dataset of soft drinks available in UK supermarkets from September 2015 to February 2019.

Dr Peter Scarborough, associate professor at the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, led the analysis, which is the first direct evaluation of the effects of the SDIL on drink formulation. It has been published in PLoS Medicine.

He said this new analysis shows that such fiscal interventions can be a useful and effective tool for improving the population’s diet.

“The levy is an important policy as it both reduces the sugar level of many drinks and increases the prices of high sugar drinks, helping the public to make healthier choices.”

Scarborough said the research provides “robust evidence that taxes can be used to improve the healthiness of food, and that they have a bigger influence on the food industry than voluntary measures, such as the government’s public health responsibility deal, or other non-fiscal interventions such as food labelling.”

These approaches “are important not only for preventing disease but also for reducing health inequalities”, he added.

The SDIL only applies to drinks containing more than 5g of sugar per 100ml.

The researchers found that very few eligible drinks, just 15%, were still liable for the levy by February 2019. Prior to the announcement of the levy, 52% of eligible drinks were liable.

They concluded that the biggest changes in drink formulation happened just before the implementation of the levy. In the 100 days either side of the implementation date (6 April 2018), 11% of the eligible drinks changed sugar content so that they were not liable for the tax.

Scarborough therefore recommended that policymakers should consider extending the tax to drinks that are currently exempt, such as milk-based drinks.

Professor Martin White of the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, chief investigator for the SDIL evaluation, said the findings “suggest that the levy has been effective in prompting industry reformulation to reduce sugar content of many soft drinks.”

Commission dismisses criticism of EU sugar policy made in a post-Brexit study

A UK study setting recommendations for the country’s post-Brexit trade and agriculture has challenged the EU’s sugar policy of the last decade, saying it stimulated sugar over-production. The Commission stood up for its 2016-2017 sugar quota system and dismissed the claim as unfounded.

However, he added that further research is needed to explore how these changes affect purchases and consumption of soft drinks and potential health impacts among the public, as well as impacts on businesses and the economy.

Nicholas Hodac, director-general of Soft Drinks Europe, told EURACTIV that prior to the announcement of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, UK soft drinks manufacturers had “already cut sugar from their products by 15.6%, according to Kantar Worldpanel data.

“He added that in 2017, the year before the UK soft drinks tax was introduced, “no and low-calorie soft drinks comprised 53% of all UK soft drinks sales – demonstrating that the soft drinks industry had been driving sugar reduction long before the introduction of a tax.”

He said that Soft Drinks Europe are “not in favour of discriminatory taxation, singling out one product category.”

“Sugar in the diet is derived from a wide variety of sources and there is much evidence that people will merely choose to purchase other products that are not taxed. Food taxes are also regressive and hit the poorest members of society the hardest as they spend a greater proportion of their income on food.”

He added that research has “failed to prove that food taxes reduce obesity rates in a meaningful way.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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