Tax on sugary drinks would reduce obesity, UK study

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 4th November 2013

A 20 per cent tax on sugar-sweetened drinks would reduce the number of UK adults who are obese by 180,000 (1.3 per cent) and who are overweight by 285,000 (0.9 per cent), according to a study published on the British Medical Journal’s website.

The UK study, published on 31 October 2013, found that although this was a relatively modest effect, pepole aged 16 to 29 years, as the major consumers of sugar-sweetened drinks, would be impacted most.

Previous research has shown that regular consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. The idea of a sugar sweetened drink tax (or “soda tax”) as one way to reduce consumption and raise revenue is gaining traction in the UK, but its effect on health remains uncertain.

For this reason, researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Reading set out to estimate the effect of a 20 per cent tax on sugar-sweetened drinks on obesity in the UK, and to understand the health effect on different income groups.

Study method

Using data from surveys of dietary purchases, the price of drinks, and body weight, researchers were able to estimate that a 20 per cent sales tax on sugar sweetened drinks would reduce the number of obese adults in the UK by 180,000 (1.3 per cent) and the number who are overweight by 285,000 (0.9 per cent).

The health gains would be similar across all income groups, but would decline with age, according to the researchers. As the major consumers of sugar sweetened drinks, young people (under the age of 30 years) would experience the greatest reductions in obesity.

Revenue raised

The tax would be expected to raise £276 million (€326 million; US$442 million) annually (around 8p per person per week) and would reduce consumption of sugar sweetened drinks by around 15 per cent.

This revenue, said the authors, “could be used to increase NHS funding during a period of budget restrictions or to subsidise foods with health benefits, such as fruit and vegetables.”

The researchers concluded that taxation of sugar sweetened drinks was “a promising population measure to target population obesity, particularly among younger adults.” However, they stressed that it “should not be seen as a panacea” and said further work is needed to clarify the level (and patterns) of sugar sweetened drink consumption in the UK.

In an accompanying editorial, Jason Block, Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School in the US, said this study provides evidence that a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks can work – and he calls on more countries “to implement high taxes and measure the results.”

A proposal by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges calling for the UK to pilot and monitor the effect of a one year 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks “would be a good start,” according to Professor Block.

“Econometric modelling studies are important and helpful but provide projections rather than measures after actual policy change. We now need policy makers to act and provide opportunities for real world evidence on a 20% tax on sugar sweetened drinks,” Professor Block said.

Experts respond to study

There has been a mixed response to the study from UK experts, with several experts suggesting the study is positive but limited.

“Obesity is the result of a chronic excess of calories ingested over calories expended,” said Sir Stephen O’Rahilly, Professor of Clinical Biochemistry and Medicine at the University of Cambridge, and Director MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit, Wellcome Trust-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science. “Anything that facilitates increased calorie intake with increase the risk of obesity,” he said.

Professor O’Rahilly said that while sugary drinks were “certainly part of the problem” and effective discouragement of the ingestion of sugary beverages would likely have a health benefit, the reality was more complex.

“Taxation of specific foods is likely to be currently politically undeliverable in most democracies,” Professor O’Rahily said. “A workable alternative might be to encourage the major companies to switch to aggressive promotion and marketing of less harmful versions of their products,” he said.

Professor O’Rahilly said that while there was a “lively debate about the possible adverse effects of non-caloric sweeteners, they appear broadly safe.”

The debate over the benefit of a sugary-drink tax has been ongoing for several years. Australian Food News reported in September 2013 that a study in the US had shown that taxing sugary beverages was not a “clear cut strategy” to reduce obesity. Meanwhile, in March 2013, a New York judge blocked an attempt by the New York City Council to ban large servings of sugary drinks.

Sugary drink tax could reduce obesity, UK study finds