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Taxing drinks

Drink tax could reduce UK adult obesity by 180,000

Tax could cut drinks purchases by 15% and lead to a reduced energy intake of 28 calories per person per week

A 20% tax on sugar sweetened drinks would reduce the number of UK adults who are obese by 180,000 (1.3%) and who are overweight by 285,000 (0.9%), according to a study, Overall and income specific effect on prevalence of overweight and obesity of 20% sugar sweetened drink tax in UK: econometric and comparative risk assessment modelling, published in BMJ.

A typical sugary drink contains six to 15 teaspoons of sugar, a teaspoon is equivalent to 4g of sugar or 16 calories. The researchers estimated that such a tax could cut drinks purchases by 15% and lead to a reduced energy intake of 28 calories per person per week.

"Sugar-sweetened drinks are known to be bad for health and our research indicates that a 20% tax could result in a meaningful reduction in the number of obese adults in the UK,” said Dr Adam Briggs, lead study author from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at Oxford University. "Such a tax is not going to solve obesity by itself, but we have shown it could be an effective public health measure and should be considered alongside other measures to tackle obesity in the UK."

Researchers at the universities of Oxford and Reading set out to estimate the effect of a 20% tax on sugar sweetened drinks on obesity in the UK, and to understand the health effect on different income groups.

Using a series of statistical models based on available data the researchers estimated that a 20% tax (which would raise the cost of a 70p can to 84p) would decrease sugary drink consumption by about 15%. This, they estimate, would lead to a 180,000 (1.3%) reduction in the number of obese adults in the UK, and a 285,000 (0.9%) reduction in the number of overweight and obese adults.

The health gains would be similar across all income groups, but would decline with age. Although the study’s authors claim that this is a relatively modest effect, people aged 16-29 years as the major consumers of sugar sweetened drinks, would be impacted the most.

"There's ample evidence to suggest that taxing soft drinks won't curb obesity, not least because its causes are far more complex than this simplistic approach implies,” said Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association. "Indeed, the latest official guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence points to the need to look at overall diet and lifestyle. Trying to blame one set of products is misguided, particularly when they comprise a mere 2% of calories in the average diet."

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

This revenue, say 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."

They conclude that taxation of sugar sweetened drinks "is a promising population measure to target population obesity, particularly among younger adults." But they stress that it "should not be seen as a panacea" and say further work is needed to clarify the level (and patterns) of sugar sweetened drink consumption in the UK.

"Most nutritionists agree it would be better to drink water than sugar-sweetened beverages,” said Tom Sanders, professor of nutrition and dietetics at King's College London, UK. “However, many consumers like sweet drinks and if they could not afford to buy sugary fizzy drinks they can always revert to drinking tea with added sugar as in the past. The cost of sugar-sweetened beverages is currently so low that any price increase would be so marginal that it would be unlikely to affect intake.”

It is believed that obesity-related complaints cost the NHS £5 billion a year.

American Heart Association

The American Heart Association has issued the following statemnet, supporting the outcomes of the study:

  "The American Heart Association supports a multi-pronged approach to address obesity across our nation. We must make it easier for Americans to choose affordable nutritious foods and beverages by making them more accessible. This includes creating and implementing new policies that provide healthier options as well as efforts to educate all Americans on nutrition.

The American Heart Association advocates that communities should increase the availability of healthy drinks and decrease the availability of unhealthy drinks. The economic model used for this study from the British Medical Journal, and the existing evidence, provides policymakers a compelling case to enact targeted sugar-sweetened beverage taxes of at least one penny per ounce. This will help further evaluate the impact of price on the consumption of sugary drinks. Many published economic models have demonstrated the potential benefit of a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. Once states and cities enact such policies, we need thorough evaluation to see the real world impact on consumer purchasing, consumption of sugary drinks, industry response and health outcomes. Mexico's effort provides an excellent starting point, but we need U.S. states and communities to enact the tax as well. We agree with the new study's conclusion that calls for more substantial beverage taxes so that real world evidence can demonstrate their effectiveness at curbing sugary drink consumption and improving the health of Americans of all ages.

It is well-established that sugar-sweetened beverages are the number one source of added sugars in the American diet. A 12-ounce can of regular soda contains about 130 calories and 8 teaspoons of sugar. Consumption of sugary drinks has increased 500 percent in the past 50 years and now is the single largest category of caloric intake in children, surpassing milk a decade ago. Children take in 10 to 15 percent of their total daily calories from sugary drinks. We recommend low- and no calorie beverages such as water, unsweetened tea, diet soft drinks, and fat-free or low-fat milk as better choices than full-calorie soft drinks. In addition, Americans should try to limit the amount of added sugars in all the foods they eat.

We further advocate that state and local governments that generate revenue from beverage tax initiatives direct these funds toward public health and obesity education and prevention efforts with strong evaluation components."

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