Will The Sugar Tax Help Reduce Obesity Levels?

Will The Sugar Tax Help Reduce Obesity Levels?

More than a few eyebrows were raised when the UK Chancellor, George Osborne, announced in March that he would be taxing the soft drinks industry. Although the move had public support and celebrity backing from the likes of world famous Chef Jamie Oliver, there was more scepticism from the scientific community, which is less easy to convince that taxing sugary drinks is the way to fight childhood obesity.

Why Only Drinks?

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Many anti-sugar tax campaigners point out the fact that there are many other foodstuffs, such as chocolate, which has higher levels of sugar than the fizzy drinks which are being targeted. Nutritionists point out though that sugar in fizzy drinks has no benefit at all, and refer to them as “empty calories”. Nutritional guidelines in the UK have also been redrawn in recent years, with a recommendation that people aged over 11 have no more than 30g of added sugar a day. A can of Coca Cola has 35g of added sugar. Is the drinks industry being targeted just because it’s easy to do so? The new tax is complex, being split into two bands so that the manufacturers of the most sugary drinks are charged more, and it excludes hot drinks from coffee shops, some of which have five times as carbonated drinks.

International Situation

The World Health Organisation is working worldwide to try to tackle the obesity epidemic, which is as much of a problem in developing countries as it is in Western Europe. Over the past four decades, the average human has got 1.5kg heavier every year, and for the first time ever there are more people who are dangerously overweight than there are malnourished. Different governments around the world have responded in various ways. France introduced a “soda tax” on sugary drinks in 2012, and Norway has a more general sugar tax on unhealthy products. Similar taxes have been discussed at the highest level of government in Canada, South Africa and the United States. 

The Mexican Example

Exponents of the sugar tax usually hold up the example of Mexico, a country where obesity was a growing problem and which introduced a 10% sugar tax on sweetened drinks in 2014. In the year after the tax was introduced, consumption of sugary drinks fell by 4.2 litres per person, with the poorest households perhaps unsurprisingly seeing the largest fall in purchases. It is still early days for the Mexican sugar tax to take effect, but early indications are positive. Drinks which have no added sugar have also seen sales rise.

Long Term Effects of a Sugar Tax on Obesity

Although early results from the Mexican sugar tax appear to show a dramatic decrease in the purchase of sugary drinks, will this decrease be sustained? Perhaps not, if the pattern follows the experience of other countries. Forward thinking Denmark introduced its own sugar tax on soft drinks and other unhealthy products in the 1930s, but scrapped it in 2013 after realising that it was ineffective and that Danes just travelled to Sweden or Germany to stock up on soft drinks and chocolate. Could the same happen in Mexico, where over time the population just starts to accept the new pricing for sweetened drinks as the norm? Time will tell.

Most experts do agree that the sugar tax in isolation will do nothing to change consumer behaviour. Governments who are considering introducing a sugar tax are therefore working hard to come up with other measures which will change consumer behaviour and inform them about why they shouldn’t be buying sweetened products in the first place. Sugary drinks are routinely banned in many schools and from vending machines in hospitals, healthy eating and making healthy choices is on the curriculum for school children, along with doctors and nurses being more willing to tell obese patients that they need to lose weight. Measures such as a sugar tax will only ever be part of the answer. What is certainly true though is that a wholesale change in attitude towards sweetened drinks in particular or sugar in general is not going to happen quickly. Proven scientific links between cancer and smoking were first made in 1930, yet in 2016 there are still one billion smokers worldwide. 

How are you educating your students about healthy living options?  Have you discussed the pros and cons of a Sugar Tax in your class – do you think it will make a difference to obesity levels in your country?

Sources:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-35824071

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/mar/19/sugar-tax-all-fizz-or-weighty-blow-obesity

http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/obesity/en/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/obesity-trends-in-the-u-s-reflect-a-global-epidemic/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/12085408/Children-aged-five-eating-own-weight-in-sugar-every-year.html

http://www.ash.org.uk/files/documents/ASH_741.pdf

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