Sugary drink tax fizzles out

Efforts to reduce sugar consumption from soft drinks has had a limited effect on drink choice, according to new research by Leeds Beckett University.

The introduction of a sugar tax 12 months ago (6 April 2018) is part of a wider Government plan to tackle the nation’s growing obesity crisis.

Of 154 people surveyed following the introduction of the tax, just 4% (six people) said they had reduced their sugary drink intake. Just over half thought their intake of soft drinks was unchanged.

Gemma Bridge, a researcher at Leeds Beckett’s Carnegie School of Sport said: ‘Excessive consumption of sugar has been associated with an increased risk of obesity and dental problems.

‘A levy on soft drinks was implemented to reduce sugar consumption. Based on the results of our survey, it appears that soft drink consumption does not appear to have changed dramatically since the implementation of the levy.’

Participants were also asked if they thought the levy had been effective at reducing sugar consumption in general. About a quarter (23.5%) said it had been effective, but just over a fifth (20.9%) didn’t think it had resulted in reductions.

However, due to extensive reformulation efforts by industry, it is probably that if people drank the same volume of sugary drinks, said Gemma, it would mean a reduction in sugar intake because the drinks now contain less sugar.

She added: ‘But it is also important to consider whether any substitution effects have taken place.

‘For example, people who previously drank sugary drinks may now be now replacing the sugar that has been removed with sugar in tea, sweets, biscuits or other food and drink items.’

The UK Soft Drink Industry Levy (SDIL) was introduced on 6th April 2018 and was aimed at sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) containing 5g or more of sugar per 100ml.

A number of retailers including Asda, Tesco and Morrison’s reformulated all of their own brand SSBs in order to avoid the SDIL price increases.

Other manufactures opted to change product sizes in order to lessen the impact of the price increases. For example, Coca-Cola’s recipe was not changed and therefore still has a sugar content of 10.6g/100ml, however the standard sized can was reduced.

Altering marketing strategies so that marketing budgets were pushed towards sugar free or low sugar products was also one response to the announcement of the SDIL.

In the UK, it has been estimated that SSBs contribute to over 20% of UK children’s added sugar consumption. As excess sugar consumption can increase the risk of obesity, which is associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes, SSBs are a key target of sugar reduction efforts.

Globally, obesity rates have tripled since 1975, with 41 million children under the age of five overweight or obese.

Obesity is a particular challenge since many children who are overweight remain so in adulthood.

In the UK, 63% of adults are overweight, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

As part of a national strategy to help tackle obesity, Leeds Beckett is leading a three-year programme with England’s local authorities and Public Health England.

Before the sugar tax was introduced, Leeds Beckett carried out research on attitudes towards the levy.

Of 778 adults surveyed, only 22% said they thought the tax was being implemented to help tackle childhood obesity. And less than 1% thought the tax was designed to reduce dental health issues – a key reason for the levy. Only 49% of women, compared to 61% of men, expected to change their SSB consumption because of the tax.

Gemma said: ‘As children’s food and drink intake is often similar to that of their parents, reducing SSB consumption in the whole population is of importance for the health of the nation now and in the future.

‘Industry-led pledges for responsible marketing and lower sugar SSB product formulation have dominated.

‘However, research has indicated that these industry pledges are contrary to industry profit making goals and have not been effective in reducing sugar consumption.’

Following World Health Organization recommendations, sugar taxes have already been implemented – with varying degrees of success – in a number of countries including Colombia, Denmark, France and Mexico.

Mexico introduced a one peso per litre tax on carbonated drinks and other SSBs in 2014. Data suggested a 12% decline in sales of SSB after one year, with an even greater decline in sales with 17% in lower socioeconomic groups

A ‘soda tax’ was introduced in Berkeley, California in 2015 and was the first such tax in the US.

Research from Berkeley suggested that although there was a 25% decline in soda consumption following the tax, there was an increase in neighbouring cities, suggesting Berkeley residents were going elsewhere to buy cheaper soft drinks.