Sugar tax on soft drinks slashed intake by a fifth within a year, study finds

The sugar tax was introduced in 2018 by the then-Conservative government
The sugar tax was introduced in 2018 by the then-Conservative government - ANTHONY DEVLIN/PA

The sugar tax on soft drinks reduced intake by a fifth within a year of being introduced, experts from University of Cambridge and University College London have found.

The tax was introduced in 2018 to encourage soft drink makers to lower the sugar content in their products. By 2019, the daily consumption of sugar among adults had fallen by 10.9g, 20 per cent lower than a year before, while for children it had fallen by 4.8g, about 10 per cent lower.

The majority of this drop was down to reduced sugar intake from soft drinks – slashing 3g off children’s daily sugar consumption and 5g off that of adults.

However, people are still eating too much sugar overall, researchers found, and are not meeting UK or World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

Labour has pledged to improve Britain’s health by focusing on preventing illness such as obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease in the first place, raising the prospect of tax hikes on foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

The Government has also said it would ban energy drinks being sold to under-16s, give councils the ability to stop fast food chains developing shops near schools, and ban junk food adverts aimed at children online, and on TV before the 9pm watershed.

The previous government brought in the tax on sugary drinks in April 2018, with health campaigners hoping the higher prices would put consumers off buying the most sugary drinks and lead to a decline in obesity.

Many soft drink manufacturers have changed their formulas to cut their sugar content
Many soft drink manufacturers have changed their formulas to cut their sugar content - LEWIS WHYLD/PA

It meant manufacturers of soft drinks containing more than 5g of sugar per 100ml are made to pay a levy of 18p a litre to the Treasury, or 24p a litre for sugar content over 8g per 100ml. Many manufacturers changed their formulas to cut sugar, although classic Coca-Cola and Pepsi remained unchanged and instead upped their price.

In the study, the research team noted that while fizzy drinks are a major source of unhealthy “free sugars”, other foods with added sugar include biscuits, cereals, chocolates and flavoured yoghurts. Sugar in honey, syrups, unsweetened fruit juices, vegetable juices and smoothies occurs naturally but also counts towards free sugars.

Sugary drinks have been linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and premature death.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and University College London looked at data from 2008 to 2019 to explore sugar trends over time. Overall, 7,999 adults and 7,656 children were included in the final analysis.

The experts found a drop in sugar consumption after the tax was introduced, and concluded it “led to significant reductions in dietary free sugar consumption in children and adults”.

They said the energy people got from free sugar as a percentage of total energy did not change, indicating that calories from free sugars were dropping at the same time as a decline in overall calorie intake.

Guidelines from the WHO and the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition say people should limit free sugar consumption to below 5 per cent of total energy intake. This is equivalent to daily maximum amounts of 30g for adults, 24g for children aged seven to 10 and 19g for young children aged four to six.

To date, more than 50 countries have introduced a sugar tax on soft drinks.

A previous study by researchers at Cambridge linked the sugar tax to the prevention of more than 5,500 children being admitted to hospital for tooth extractions. The study was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

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