The sugar tax – 1 year on

The sugar tax – 1 year on

In our latest blog, we celebrate the one year mark from the official introduction of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy in the UK, reflecting back on the progress made since the initial announcement to where we are today.

What is the sugar tax?

The Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) was announced in 2016 by the-then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne, as part of the spring budget. The levy then became UK law exactly one year ago today, on the 6th April 2018, which allowed industry a two year window to respond. The aim was to encourage industry to reformulate their sugary drinks so they contain less sugar and it was introduced as part of the government’s Childhood Obesity Plan (Chapter 1).

Evidence shows that people who drink a lot of sugary drinks are more likely to develop tooth decay, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Sugary drinks often contain lots of calories, and people can easily consume many calories from sugary drinks without feeling full. Furthermore, figures show that children and teenagers are consuming three times the recommended level of sugar (adults fare almost as badly).

The levy operates with two tiers; one for total sugar content above 5g per 100ml and a second higher band for the most sugary drinks – with more than 8g of sugar per 100ml.

The official introduction on this day last year was recognised as a landmark day for public health – among other campaign groups such as Children’s Food Campaign/Sustain, Obesity Health Alliance, Action on Sugar and even the World Health Organisation, we were pleased to play an important role in the lobbying and advocacy efforts that resulted in this new policy.

The levy has proven popular with the public, too – a petition calling for the government to impose a sugar tax was signed by over 150,000 people prior to the implementation, and polls show the SDIL was backed by 69% of the population at one stage.

Initial estimates stated that the tax would raise approximately £520m in the first year, however the Government reported in November that it had raised £153m that had been allocated to Healthy Schools Capital Fund. Furthermore, a report by Public Health England states that the tax could save the NHS £15bn and almost 80,000 lives in a generation by weaning the public off its sweet tooth.

So – one year one, what has actually changed since the sugar tax was introduced?

For those brands that chose to cooperate with the tax and avoid paying the tax, there has been a significant difference in the sugar content of their sugary drinks. Official evaluation data is yet to be released, but initial Government figures suggest that around 50% of drinks had reduced their sugar content. Some key examples include Scottish-favourite Irn Bru seeing a 54% reduction in sugar and Lucozade Orange a 64% reduction in sugar content. The flurry of reformulations explain the significantly less generated revenue from the tax. There are some considerations here, however. Many brands have substituted sugar for artificial sweeteners, and whilst artificial sweeteners are proven safe to use and are a helpful way of reducing sugar in the short term, there is evidence to suggest that the public may benefit from a reduction in the overall level of sweetness of our diets.

For those who refused to reformulate, a change in price and portion size has been observed. A standard can of regular Coca-Cola has gone up by around 8p for a 70p can, and Coca-Cola also now produces a 250ml can that is the same price as the standard 330ml serving. Other examples of brands who have opted away from reformulation include Red Bull, Dr Pepper and Pepsi.

Further examples of changes following the sugar tax include default serving of sugar free/diet versions of soft drinks in the out of home sector – for example in the Slug and Lettuce all standard soft drinks are served as diet/sugar free. If you would like full sugar varieties, you must ask for this and it comes at an additional charge.

Has it worked? How can we tell?

There is no one silver bullet in tackling obesity, therefore no one policy can solve this multi-faceted issue. The SDIL forms part of a wider package of proposals to tackle various drivers of obesity simultaneously – specifically, reducing excess free sugar intake that is being fuelled by sugary drinks in children and young people.

An academic evaluation of the SDIL is currently being carried out by researchers at Cambridge University. Their approach takes the form of a major natural experimental evaluation study of the ADIL, aiming to examine:

  • whether, how and for whom the levy has an effect on health
  • the process by which the tax came about
  • wider change in public, political, societal and industry attitudes to sugar and the SDIL over the period from 2014-2020.

Evaluation from other countries such as Mexico and Berkeley, California, have indicated a positive shift from the consumption of sugary drinks towards water. Mexico introduced a 10 per cent tax on sugary drinks in 2014 and saw a 12 per cent reduction over the first year.

However – as no other country has tried this sort of tax, we don’t know what the effects will be – we look forward to seeing the results of the SDIL evaluation in due course.

In terms of the key aims of the levy, it really wanted to encourage reformulation – again we are still awaiting official figures, but we can certainly say there has been some progress in this area as it stands, given the amount of drinks that now contain significantly less sugar.

What’s next?

There is a possibility that the tax may be extended to other sugary drinks. Pure fruit juices and milk-based drinks are tax exempt, however Public Health England have stated that they will consider extending the levy should these two categories not respond appropriately to sugar reduction targets.

In addition, there have been calls to extend the tax to food products. Health campaigners have said the fizzy drinks tax should be extended to cover all chocolate, sweets and other confectionery containing the highest levels of sugar. Chocolate and sweets are already included in Public Health England’s programme aiming for a 20 per cent reduction in sugar by 2020. But campaign group, Action on Sugar, is urging a mandatory levy set at a minimum of 20 per cent on all confectionery products that contain high levels of sugar.

The Department of Health and Social Care is also currently in the process of running a series of 12-week consultations to help improve the obesogenic environment, as part of the second chapter of their Childhood Obesity Plan. These include:

  • A national programme to reduce sugar content in everyday food and drinks
  • Ending the sale of energy drinks to young people
  • Introducing calorie labelling in the out of home sector
  • Reducing price and placement promotions of less healthy food and drink
  • Banning high-sugar foods from supermarket till areas and the end of aisles
  • Clamping down on junk food ads on TV and online

We have responded in support of many of these consultations, with the view that these are the types of bold legislation required to effectively tackle the rising tide of obesity in our childhood population. The introduction of the SDIL may have just been the catalyst we needed here in the UK to prompt other necessary legislation to help our children #GrowUpHealthy.

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