While the UK is implementing its tax on soft drinks, experts provide their insights on the broader context and trends on sugar reduction in the UK.
Anna Masing, from Stylus, underlines that we are “seeing a real sea change with brands of all sizes exploring new product and flavour innovation, from low-sugar soft drinks to new lines for vegans“. She says that “while the tax might be shining the spotlight on sugar, the trend towards developing healthier alternatives is so much bigger than that and one that has been bubbling away for some time”.
Martin Hook, from Ayming UK, confirms that “drinks companies have been steadily making their drinks healthier to combat obesity – sugar free and diet versions have been around for some time“.
Mark Jones, from Gordons law, underlines that “this levy in isolation is unlikely to have any significant effect on our health“. While he calls it a “step in the right direction“, he nonetheless recognizes that “there is little evidence to demonstrate that [a tax] actually tackles the problem of calorie intake/calorie balance“. He calls for “taxes on high calorie and high sugar food products too“.
An academic, Daniel Bailey from the University of Bedfordshire, shares the same analysis, questioning whether the tax will “have any success in reducing how much sugar people consume“.
The full article in Beverage Daily can be found here.
Lasts week, the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), published a dedicated issue on obesity: it includes a broad range of articles including taxing sugar sweetened beverages.
In the lead accompanying editorial, Dr. Edward Livingston notes that “although much attention has focused on SSBs, singling out these products for taxation may be the wrong approach for attempting to counteract obesity, because SSB consumption has been declining since the mid-1990s. During this period the prevalence of obesity has been increasing, suggesting that reducing general caloric intake is likely more important than reducing SSB consumption alone.”
It is then added that: “(…) there are excess calories in almost everything people eat in the modern era. Because of this, selecting one particular food type, like SSBs, for targeted reductions is not likely to influence obesity at the population level. Rather, there is a need to consider the entire food supply and gradually encourage people to be more aware of how many calories they ingest from all sources and encourage them to select foods resulting in fewer calories eaten on a daily basis. Perhaps tax policy could be used to encourage these behaviors, with taxes based on the calorie content of foods. Revenue generated from these taxes could be used to subsidize healthy foods to make them more affordable.”
In his conclusion, Dr. Livingston underlines that “the approach to the prevention and treatment of obesity needs to be reimagined. The relentless increase in the rate of obesity suggests that the strategies used to date for prevention are simply not working.”
The editorial and other articles are available here.
As the French Parliament is currently debating whether to reshape and increase the tax on soft drinks, an opinion piece published on 9 November in the French newspaper Le Figaro warns readers about the effects of an increase of the current soda tax in place in France.
Bill Wirtz, analyst for European Students for Liberty, argues that such a move would be another Nanny State measure that would penalize the poorest French households, as confirmed by the French Health Minister Buzyn in interviews early October before the proposal was introduced by an MP in the National Assembly.
Wirtz underlines that such taxes may have unintended consequences, such as substitution towards cheaper products containing the same amount of sugar. He also refers to the tax introduced in Denmark which was abolished 15 months later by the government that introduced it for lack of concrete public health results.
The opinion piece can be found in Le Figaro here.
On 23 June, as part of a special report on regulating consumers, the EU media outlet Euractiv reported on the current debate in Europe and across national markets on how government can encourage consumers to make healthier choices through reformulation rather than discriminatory taxation.
The article underlines that EU authorities have launched several initiatives to tackle obesity, but that at national level, governments are discussing the possibility to introduce food taxes, including soft drinks taxes. However, the health benefits of such taxes have not been proven.
Euractiv reports that the soft drinks industry has been an early mover in this debate, reducing by 12% the calorie content in its products from 2000 to 2015 and committing to reduce sugar by a further average 10% between 2015 and 2020, in the context of recent EU policy initiatives to curb obesity and non-communicable diseases, in particular through encouraging reformulation.
The article also notes that the move from the soft drinks industry was applauded by BEUC, the EU’s consumer organisation, which indicated that “it is encouraging that EU member states have made food recipes improvement a top priority”.
The full article is available here.
The article published by the New York Times (NYT) covers the publication by the Health Affairs Journal of an article by Professor Popkin on the impact of the Mexico sugar-sweetened beverage tax. This study finds that purchases of taxed beverages are continuing to decline. It estimates that “overall, sugary drink sales fell by 5.5 percent in 2014 compared with the year before, and by 9.7 percent in 2015 — again compared with 2013”. Mr Popkin also suggests that sugary drink consumption might follow the same path as other products traditionally considered as addictive “like cigarettes and alcohol”. He says that “over time people seem to get more weaned away from the sugary beverages”, which in his opinion would “increase the impact of the tax”.
Following the publication of this article, ICBA released a press statement challenging the assumptions made in the NYT’s piece. It laments the fact that the article relies on theoretical models that do not align with actual tax data from the Mexican Secretariat for Finance and Public Credit (SHCP). These official data actually show an increase in sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) sales through 2016 rather than a decrease as suggested by the authors. It also underlines that the tax introduced in Mexico has not proven any health benefit to Mexicans as Mexico’s 2016 national health and nutrition survey shows that obesity rate has gone upward. ICBA’s press release ends by proposing other methods than fiscal interventions such as introducing smaller pack sizes or reformulating existing beverages, which have proven to be successful in curbing obesity trends.
You can find the link to the NYT’s article here
The working paper released by the New Zealand Treasury challenges the argument according to which a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) could be the most effective strategy to fight obesity as it neglects the multiple dimensions linked to this burden. The main argument presented by the author shows that introducing a tax on SSBs will not necessarily mean significant reduction in calorie consumption by consumers and for a number of reasons.
The paper firstly argues that the health status of those responding to a price increase is generally unknown and higher responses may come from healthy consumers rather than the target population group. Moreover, surveys typically measure expenditures rather than consumption and its effects can be experienced after a period of time longer than the survey period.
The author also aims at demonstrating the importance of the substitution effect of imposing a selective tax. Indeed, substitution towards lower-priced SSBs could have harmful rather than beneficial effects. Another problem he underlines is that emphasis is often only placed on the own-price elasticity of demand for SSBs although substitution towards other non-taxed goods that are high in calories can also take place, reducing or even eliminating any direct reduction in the consumption of SSBs. To illustrate the importance of the substitution effect, the author uses a mathematical model designed to examine the effect of total calorie consumption of a selective tax, rather than simply the consumption of SSBs. The conclusions show that the substitution effect to other non-taxed commodities with relatively high calorie content is significant and that imposing a sugar tax does not necessarily mean lower calorie consumption for consumers.
Full paper can be found here