Sugar tax will help us battle obesity epidemic

11 Apr 2016

There is a compelling case for Ireland to follow the UK and introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, says Professor Ivan Perry, of UCC’s Department of Epidemiology & Public Health

SUGAR, rum, and tobacco are commodities which are nowhere necessaries of life, which are become objects of almost universal consumption, and which are therefore extremely proper subjects of taxation.”
So wrote Adam Smith in his 1776 Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
In Britain, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne recently announced a sugar tax in the form of a levy on sugar-drinks manufacturers. From April 2018, soft-drinks companies there will be required to pay 18p for every litre of sugar-drink with 5-8 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres sold in Britain, and 24p for every litre with more than 8 grams of sugar (2 teaspoons) per 100 millilitres.

Britain joins a growing list of countries which have either implemented or are planning to implement a sugar-drink tax, including Mexico, France, Hungary, Finland, South Africa, the Philippines, Indonesia and India. Pressure is growing for a similar tax in Ireland.
The case for a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in Ireland is clear and compelling. Sugar is implicated as a major factor in the epidemic of overweight and obesity that has emerged in Ireland and worldwide since the early 1990s. Just under two thirds of adults (61%) and one in four children (25%) in Ireland are now either overweight or obese.

Sugar intake is also linked to tooth decay, diabetes and heart disease.
Children are particularly vulnerable to high intakes of sugar. Here in Cork a recent school-based study (The Cork Children’s Lifestyle Study) involving over 1,000 schoolchildren aged 8-10 in 28 schools, showed that consumers of sugar- sweetened beverages were significantly more likely to be overweight or obese compared to non-consumers and just one additional 330ml can per day was associated with a 1kg increase of body weight.
In this study, led by Dr Janas Harrington in our Department in UCC, we found that 82% of children were regular consumers of sugar-sweetened drinks. These findings are in line with the large number of international studies and are part of the body of evidence that have led to a recent statement by Public Health England, that the “average five-year-old today is consuming their body weight in sugar, each year” — or over 6,000 teaspoons of sugar a year. It should also be noted that we now also have evidence from large randomised control trials that reducing intake of sugar- sweetened drinks decreases risk of weight gain and obesity in children and young people.

Sugar drinks are not the only source for sugar but it has been shown in these studies and others that they are among the most important sources for children.
In the Cork study, the highest levels of consumption of sugar drinks were among children of parents with lower levels of education and it is suggested that taxes on sugar are regressive, that they target people on lower incomes.
It is undoubtedly true that poorer people spend a higher proportion of their income on food. However, this argument ignores the harsh reality that obesity follows a social gradient, with higher rates seen among people on lower incomes. Indeed, it may be argued that it is obesity that is regressive, affecting the poor disproportionately, as people on lower incomes tend to rely on cheaper foods that are high in calories but lacking in nutrition. It is suggested that revenue collected from a sugar drink tax should go towards subsidising healthier foods in disadvantaged areas through initiatives such as breakfast clubs in schools. If this could be achieved, it would represent an excellent use of resources and might help reduce social inequalities in health, as food is such an important determinant of overall health and wellbeing.

Research in countries that have already introduced a sugar drinks tax provide some indication of the likely effects of such a tax in Ireland. Current economic models suggest that a 20% increase in sugar-drinks prices would lead to an approximately 18% reduction in intakes, with an estimated maximum increase in expenditure of approximately 82 cent per week. While this would not solve the crisis of overweight and obesity in children and adults, it would represent a significant step forward. Aside from the direct effects on consumption of sugar, it would provide a clear signal to society on the threat of obesity, both to health budgets and to the health and wellbeing of the population. It would also incentivise the food industry to reduce the sugar content of their products and perhaps change their advertising strategies.
Obesity is a complex phenomenon with many contributing factors. A sugar tax should be legislated as one part of a multi-pronged intervention which should include clear labelling on food products including drinks, e.g. traffic light system; a ban on advertising of sugar- sweetened drinks; and a ban on sugar-sweetened drinks in schools. These measures would provide a powerful symbol of Government leadership on this vital public health issue.
It will also support the general public and especially parents in their efforts to make healthier food choices.
Ivan Perry is Professor of Public Health in the Department of Epidemiology & Public Health at UCC. He wishes to acknowledge input from Mr Barrie Tyner and Dr Janas Harrington, from the Department, for this article.