Sugar tax – By Holly Angus (Clinical Dietitian)
Is it really working?
In the past four years, over 20 countries around the world have introduced a sugar tax with the United Arab Emirates set to introduce an additional sugar tax on all products which contain sugar and artificial sweetener in January 2020. But what does that really mean to the average consumer and does it really work?
What is a sugar tax?
In 2018, the UK introduced a tax on all imported soft drinks with added sugar, with a flat rate of 18p per litre for drinks containing 5-8 g of sugar per 100ml, and 24p per litre for drinks containing more than 8g of sugar per 100ml. In the United States, individual cities have introduced sugar taxes on sugar sweetened beverages (SSB), but it is yet to become a nationwide tax due to strong resistance from major drinks companies.
Many countries have chosen to tax soft drinks with added sugar such as fizzy drinks, whilst some have gone one step further and taxed drinks with natural sugars such as fruit juices and milk drinks. Singapore have taken further action and are due to ban the advertisement of high sugar drinks across all media platforms such as TV, radios, online and outdoor adverts.
According to the latest statistics from the World Health Organisation, there are more than 1.9 billion adults in the world who are overweight, with over 650 million classed as obese. More disturbingly, in 2016 there were estimated to be 41 million children under the age of 5 who are overweight or obese. That is over 4 and a half times more than the entire population of London. Obesity isn’t a new problem for the Western world, but it is fast becoming an increasingly serious problem in the Middle East, where western ways have combined with new generation wealth to create a culture and environment where people want and can have things instantly. This of course means the fast food of the West, and any food or drink you can think of delivered to your door.
A recent study conducted by a hospital in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, found 71% of 33,000 men were overweight or obese. In addition to this startling statistic, in 2017 the International Diabetes Federation found that 17.3% of the whole population of the UAE has type 2 diabetes, a largely preventable disease.
Sugar tax has been introduced to not only encourage a change in purchase and consumption of these SSB but also to encourage big drinks manufacturers to change their recipes, with Ribena and Lucozade already making a change, however drinks giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola have not made a change to their classic recipes.
Does it work?
There are limited long term studies available about the success of introducing a sugar tax but early observations indicate a shift in both consumption and in obesity related diseases and complications.
A study in 2014 was conducted in Mexico by the Mexican National Institute of Public Health and the University of North Carolina, two years after the introduction of tax on sugar sweetened beverages. It showed an average reduction of 7.6% in the purchase of sugary drinks and also found a shift in consumption of non-taxed drinks such as bottled water and fruit juices. In Mexico alone, over US$ 2.6 billion was raised from the tax with some of this money being invested in installing water fountains in schools across Mexico. Some may say a success, however further studies have found since then, that purchase and consumption has returned to its original figure pre taxation.
A study from Berkeley, California, a city which implemented a tax in 2015, also found there was a significant reduction in the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages and an increase in water consumption when compared to neighbouring cities which have not brought in the tax.
Sugar Tax – Conclusion
Early indications from a number of countries suggest taxing SSB, a major contributor to obesity across the world, has made a difference in people’s buying habits. However, with companies reformulating their recipes to contain lower amounts of sugar, the sales of beverages such as fizzy drinks are likely to drastically change in the long term. This tax also does not address the other number of contributing factors to obesity and related diseases, such as high saturated fat content of foods and sedentary lifestyles. It will be interesting to see the effect the tax on all sugar containing items, introduced in 2020 to the United Arab Emirates, has in the long term on population health and consumption habits.