by Beth Bradshaw | 27 October, 2016 3:46 pm
Whilst there is no one single solution in curbing the rising prevalence of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs), there is a growing body of evidence to suggest fiscal measures are useful tools in tackling current public health issues worldwide.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that pricing policies have the potential to influence, change and improve habitual dietary behaviours and purchasing patterns by nudging consumers away from unhealthy options and toward low-sugar alternatives. In particular, the WHO has proposed that the evidence surrounding a 20% taxation of sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) in terms of health benefits is strongest, prompting the organisation to urge all countries to contemplate introducing a levy on soft drinks with added sugars, for the sake of the health of their population.
But why sugary drinks? Why not implement taxes on fast food, takeaways or baked goods? In the UK, added sugars contribute to 15.6% of daily calorie intake in teenagers and 14.7% in children aged 4-10 years old, when recent recommendations by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) state they should account for 5% of energy intake. A large proportion of these added sugars are from regularly consuming soft drinks, 40% in teenagers and 30% in children. It is clear that we are consuming far too much sugar. There is a vast amount of evidence to suggest SSBs are a driving force in obesity, NCDs and dental caries globally and therefore pose a great risk to public health.
Mexico could be seen as the greatest success story in terms of limiting SSB consumption through taxation. The levy was introduced as 70% of adults in Mexico are overweight or obese and are the highest consumers of SSBs anywhere in the world at 160 litres per-capita – a staggering 71% of added sugars in the diet are attributed to consumption of SSBs.
Since its introduction in January 2014, the country has seen a 12% reduction of sales of SSBs, with the most dramatic effects seen in low-socioeconomic groups in society – averaging a 19% decline. Whilst critics see the sugar tax as another tax on the poor, those of low socioeconomic groups are vulnerable to poor health and developing NCDs, and therefore they have the most to gain from such taxes, with their pre-tax SSB consumption often the highest, and post-tax consumption sees the greatest fall.
The UK is not the only country applying a sugar tax to SSBs- other countries to have implemented a similar levy include: France, Finland, Hungary, Mauritius, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji and Chile.
U.S cities such as Philadelphia and Berkeley have witnessed fierce debates and aggressive industry lobbying surrounding taxing SSBs. The American Beverage Association poured $2.4m into fighting the sugar tax in Berkeley, but the popular Berkeley vs. Big Soda campaign took on the soft drinks industry and won against all odds, resulting in a 21% decrease in SSB consumption and, like Mexico, the greatest effect was seen in low income neighbourhoods. The positive response and success from these countries has prompted numerous other countries to announce plans for a sugar tax in the coming years, including the U.K, Republic of Ireland, Portugal, Hong Kong, Philippines, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Indonesia, Columbia, Brazil, India and U.S cities including New York and Boulder.
Imposing a tax on SSBs is no longer a brave and bold step into the unknown – the WHO believes it should be a standard procedure for all countries in the fight against childhood obesity and NCD’s globally.
Whilst critics will be quick to remind supporters of taxation of the long-standing sugar tax that was recently abolished in Denmark, this is simply an example of where policy makers are more concerned with the economic burden than impact on public health and where fierce persistent pressure from the industry has caused plans to buckle. However, as the evidence-base and support for a sugar tax continues to grow, these concerns will be silenced and hopefully public health will be put before profit.
Food Active (Health Equalities Group) is a member of the Obesity Health Alliance 
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