UK soft drinks tax would cut calorie intake by a ‘mere 4 calories a day,’ argues industry body

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Not just cola: fruit drinks and sports drinks are also in the firing line
Not just cola: fruit drinks and sports drinks are also in the firing line

Related tags: Soft drinks, Soft drink

The British Medical Association (BMA) is calling for a soft drink tax in the UK, but an industry body says targeting a single category is ‘misguided and unlikely to prove effective.’

Fiscal policies should be used to encourage healthy diets, suggests the BMA, and recommends a sugar-sweetened beverages tax that increases the price of products by at least 20%.

But the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) says this type of tax simply ‘does not work.’

The BMA says poor diets are a feature in the lives of children and young people, making the recommendations in its report ‘Food for Thought.’

Soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit juice concentrates

The availability of unhealthy food and drinks should be restricted, there should be stronger regulation of the nutritional content of processed products, and fiscal measures should be considered, recommends the BMA.

“The use of taxation measures on unhealthy food and drink products has consistently been found to have the potential to improve health, with relatively high taxation levels (in the region of 20%) needed to achieve positive health outcomes,” ​it says in the report.

“While taxing a wide range of products is an important long-term goal, a useful first step would be to implement a duty on sugar-sweetened beverages (all non-alcoholic water based beverages with added sugar, including sugar-sweetened soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit drink, sports drinks and fruit-juice concentrates) by increasing the price by at least 20%.”

The BMA says it is targeting soft drinks because they are often high in empty calories (products with calories but little nutritional value). UK sugar intake often exceeds recommended levels, and a high intake of added sugar is a risk factor for a number of health conditions, it adds.

A leading brand soft drink may have nine or more teaspoons of sugar in a 330ml serving, says the BMA.  A suggestion is that money obtained from a soft drinks tax could fund subsidised fruit and vegetables.

Last year health secretary Jeremy Hunt ruled out the idea of a sugar tax.

Fiscal policies – do they work?

The BSDA says soft drinks account for only 3% of calories in the average UK diet, referencing the government’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey.  

“Evidence from other countries has shown this type of tax does not work,” ​said Gavin Partington, director general, BSDA. 

“In fact, the soft drinks tax in Mexico has reduced average calorie intake by just six calories per person, per day. The study referred to by the BMA in ‘Food for Thought’ suggests a 20% tax here would reduce calorie intake by a mere four calories a day.

UK soft drinks in 2014

  • 14.8bn litres of soft drinks consumed (including carbonates, juice drinks, bottled water, and energy drinks)
  • Industry worth £15.7bn ($24.5bn)
  • 49% of carbonates sold were low and no calorie

Source: BSDA

“By contrast, the efforts by soft drinks companies including product reformulation, smaller pack sizes and increased promotion of low and no calorie drinks have led to a 7% reduction in calories from soft drinks in the last three years.”

The BSDA says the industry is doing a lot to address health concerns already, with leading manufacturers increasing collective advertising spend on low and no calorie drinks by 49% in 2014.

“The soft drinks industry recognises it has a role to play in supporting public health objectives and welcomes steps to encourage a balanced diet and active lifestyle,” ​said Partington.

“But targeting single ingredients or products is misguided and unlikely to prove effective.”

The Food and Drink Federation says UK producers provide clear nutritional information on pack.

Many foods and drinks are already taxed at 20%,”​ said Ian Wright, director general of the Federation. “Where additional taxes have been introduced they've not proven effective at driving long-term, lasting change to diets. We welcome Downing Street recently unequivocally ruling out a sugar tax and committing to a partnership approach to public health.“

Effectiveness of taxation

The BMA, however, argues that taxation does work.

A number of countries have introduced taxation on unhealthy foods and drinks, such as Mexico’s soft drink tax, introduced in January 2014.

“Reviews of this empirical and modelling evidence have consistently concluded that taxation has the potential to improve health,” said the BMA. “It has been suggested that relatively high taxation levels (in the region of 20%) would be needed in achieving detectable changes in consumption, body weight and disease occurrence.”

“As a first step, a useful initial policy would be to implement a duty on sugar-sweetened beverages. This recognises that the strongest evidence of effectiveness of taxation approaches is for sugar-sweetened beverages.

A systematic review of 160 studies on price elasticity measures suggest a 10% tax on soft drinks would result in an eight to 10% reduction in purchases of these beverages, says the BMA. US modelling studies predict weight losses of 0.32kg and 0.59kg per person, resulting from a 20% and 40% tax on all sugar-sweetened beverages respectively.

“A 2013 modelling study found a 20% tax on sugar-sweetened drinks is predicted to reduce the prevalence of obesity in the UK by 1.3% (around 180,000 people),” ​said the BMA.

“The focus on sugar-sweetened beverages also reflects that they are a significant source of added sugars.”

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