This month marked the fifth birthday of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – more commonly known as the ‘sugar tax’.
The sugar tax was implemented by the UK government on 5 April 2018, and was designed to encourage soft drink manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar contained within soft drinks. Essentially, manufacturers could avoid paying a levy on their drinks if they reduced the sugar content to below the threshold of 5g sugar per 100ml. Whilst some popular drinks reduced their sugar content ahead of the tax, such as Lucozade (by 63%), Fanta (by 33%) and Ribena (by 50%), it is important to note that some manufacturers chose to pass on the cost of the levy to consumers, rather than reduce the content of their full sugar drinks (such as Coca Cola and Pepsi).
The tax was announced as part of the Childhood Obesity Plan Chapter 1, amid concerns about the role sugary drinks are playing in the rising number of children who are living with overweight and/or obesity.1 The UK Government is just one of over 85 countries and municipalities across the globe who are currently operating a form of tax or levy on sugary drinks.2
But since its introduction, how has this helped to improve child health?
1 It has reduced the amount of sugar on our supermarket shelves
Research shows that in 2020, sugary drinks contained 45,000 tonnes less sugar than they did before the introduction of the sugar tax. That’s the equivalent of the weight of 3833 double decker buses! We have also seen the total sugar sold in soft drinks go down by 35.4%.3 This has helped the UK take one important step towards making our supermarkets healthier environments.
2 It has shifted the types of soft drinks we consume for the better
Critics of the sugar tax argued that it would impact negatively on sales and business. However, after the first year of the tax, sales of sugary drinks increased by 5.7%.4
The good news is that this increase in sales has largely been seen in drinks that don’t pay the tax – which means the drinks that contain low or no sugar, now account for 89% of all soft drink sales.5 So, the sugar tax has helped to shift consumer purchases to healthier options. The result? The levy has therefore been associated with a reduction of household sugar consumption of 30g per week.5
3 It has raised money to support children’s health
The revenue that has been generated from the tax amounts to over £1.5bn,6 which has been used to fund initiatives to support children’s health. This has included additional funding for school PE, school breakfast programmes and the Holiday Activities and Food Programme. So, not only is the sugar tax helping to reduce the amount of sugar children consume, it is also providing vital funding for initiatives that increase access to healthy food and opportunities to be physically active.
4 It has been linked to a reduction in child obesity in girls
A recent study has also linked the sugar tax to an 8% relative reduction in obesity in girls aged 10-11 years old. This equates to 5200 less cases of obesity per year. Of further importance is the fact these decreases were seen greatest in girls living in more deprived areas.7 Areas which we know experience double the prevalence of obesity when compared with the least deprived areas,8 so this evidence suggests the sugar tax may be helping to reduce the inequalities in health that deprived children are experiencing.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A SILVER BULLET…
Whilst there is evidence from the UK and other countries, such as Mexico, Germany and the US, that sugar taxes can play an important role in promoting children and young people’s health through better dental health, diet and weight outcomes,9 the impact of such taxes will be limited in isolation in the absence of additional policy measures. That’s because our food choices and weight status are influenced by a wide range of factors – no one single policy can solve the complex factors that are driving excess sugar intakes and obesity.
Sugar taxes must, therefore, be regarded as one component of a wider strategy to promote children and young people’s health as opposed to a ‘silver bullet’. Policymakers should explore other options in tandem to maximise the potential of these taxes and address other drivers of these issues, such as food and drink marketing and advertising.
Beth Molly Bradshaw, ANutr
Food Active, Health Equalities Group
Beth is a Project Manager and Registered Associate Nutritionist,
with a passion for the wider determinants of health and campaigning for
an environment that is more conducive to healthy lifestyles and behaviours.
Beth has worked at Food Active, a healthy weight charity, since 2017
and has volunteered for a further 18 months.
Email: [email protected]
- HM Government (2016). Childhood Obesity Plan: Chapter 1 [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/childhood-obesity-a-plan-for-action/childhood-obesity-a-plan-for-action [Accessed: 20th April 2023]
- World Health Organisation (2022). WHO manual on sugar-sweetened beverage taxation policies to promote healthy diets [online]. Available at: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240056299 [Accessed: 20th April 2023]
- Public Health England (2020). Sugar reduction: report on progress between 2015-2019 [online]. Available: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/984282/Sugar_reduction_progress_report_2015_to_2019-1.pdf [Accessed: 20th April 2023]
- Law C, Cornelson L, Adams J et al. An analysis of the stock market reaction to the announcements of the UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy. Econ Hum Biol, 2020, Vol 38, August 2020, retrieved 11 November 2022, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1570677X19302096
- Sustain (2023). Raise a glass to the Soft Drinks Industry Levy [online]. Available at: https://www.sustainweb.org/blogs/apr23-5years-sdil/ [Accessed: 20th April 2023]
- HM Revenue and Customs (2022). Soft Drinks Industry Levy statistics commentary 2022 [online]. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/soft-drinks-industry-levy-statistics/soft-drinks-industry-levy-statistics-commentary-2021 [Accessed: 20th April 2023]
- Rogers NT, Cummins S, Forde H, Jones CP, Mytton O, Rutter H, Sharp SJ, Theis D, White M and Adams J (2023). Associations between trajectories of obesity prevalence in English primary school children and the UK soft drinks industry levy: An interrupted time series analysis of surveillance data. PLoS medicine, 20(1), pp e1004160. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1004160
- NHS Digital (2022). National Child Measurement Programme, England, 2021/22 school year [online]. Available at: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/national-child-measurement-programme/2021-22-school-year [Accessed: 21st April 2023]
- Bradshaw B (2023). Marking 5 years of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – how can sugar taxes support children and young people’s health? [online]. Available at: https://foodactive.org.uk/blog-marking-5-years-of-the-soft-drinks-industry-levy-how-can-sugar-taxes-support-children-and-young-peoples-health/ [Accessed: 20th April 2023]