Public Health England tells UK government: Sugar taxes do work

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

“We think there could be bigger impacts from getting a handle on promotions and (...) the deep, consistent advertising our children are exposed to on unhealthy foods,” Tedstone said.
“We think there could be bigger impacts from getting a handle on promotions and (...) the deep, consistent advertising our children are exposed to on unhealthy foods,” Tedstone said.

Related tags Sugary drinks Tax Nutrition Mexico

All the evidence shows that sugar taxes decrease purchases and curb obesity– but restricting price promotions and junkfood advertising could have an even bigger impact, concludes Public Health England's report to the UK government.

The government had been accused of following political interference by turning down repeat requests to publish the overdue findings of the PHE's scientific review on how best to reduce sugar consumption. But yesterday PHE’s director of diet and obesity, Dr Alison Tedstone revealed to the health select committee the review’s conclusion: “All the evidence shows that tax does decrease purchases,” ​she said. 

“PHE does see there is a role for a fiscal approach in reducing sugary drink consumption. The higher the tax increase the greater the effect. The evidence review, said to be the most comprehensive carried out anywhere in the world, highlights evidence from Mexico, where a soft drinks tax has led to a six per cent reduction in purchases. 

“The point of the tax is to nudge people away from purchasing these things towards purchasing things that are more consistent with a healthy balanced diet​.”

But Tedstone added that other measures, such as restricting advertising of unhealthy foods to children and price promotions, would have an even bigger impact. She referred to the use of cartoon characters, such as the Coco Pop’s monkey, which engaged children and affected food preferences and choice.

The health committee has been hearing input from a range of experts as part of its inquiry into childhood obesity.

Director general of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), Ian Wright, appeared last week and focussed on the progress made by industry on a voluntary basis, such as  reformulating to reduce sugar content, changing portion sizes and providing on-pack nutrition information.

Celebrity chef and campaigner Jamie Oliver spoke in favour of a tax and told the committee that applying it on a voluntary basis in around 150 restaurants around the UK had cut soda consumption without hitting spending per head. “The point to make is it’s not radical because the French are doing it, the Mexicans are doing it. (…) They are being pro-active and brave, why can’t we?,” ​he said.

Calls for a sugar tax to be imposed on sugary drinks have been weighing in from health campaigners but the government has said it is not considering fiscal measures to combat rising obesity. In a statement, the Department of Health said: "The government has committed to a tax lock to avoid raising the cost of living and to promote UK productivity and economic growth. The causes of obesity are complex, caused by a number of dietary, lifestyle, environmental and genetic factors, and tackling it will require a comprehensive and broad approach.”

Will Mexico’s soda tax be watered-down?

Although Tedstone cited the success of Mexico’s one peso (6 cents) tax per litre of sugary drinks introduced in January 2014, the finance commission of the Mexican Congress approved this week a measure to halve the tax if sugar content is less than five grams per 100 millilitres. Health campaigners have accused the government of caving into the pressure of ‘Big Soda’ lobbies.


Meanwhile, Belgium announced its soda tax will take the form of a three-cent-per-litre excise duty imposed on sugary drinks as well as diet and light versions. Health minister Maggie de Block said this was because diet drinks still contain sugar and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame which she said had harmful effects, Le Soir reported.

But detractors have said this shows the tax is more about filling state coffers than improving public health – nutritionists because the tax is not high enough to change consumption habits and the beverage industry because it hits sugar-free drinks as well. In 2013 the EU's food safety authority EFSA concluded that aspartame is safe​.

Last month Finland announced it was scrapping​ its sugar tax on sweets and ice cream after the European Commission deemed it unfairly favoured domestic producers. The tax of 95 cents per kilo was introduced in 2011 in a bid to curb sugar consumption.

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