Monday, 13 January 2020

Sweet success for sugar tax?

The "i" newspaper has some apparently good news about the sugar levy on its front page today. The article itself is thin stuff. We are told that the average sugar content of soft drinks fell by 28 per cent between 2015 and 2018, but this is a figure from Public Health England's sugar reduction report published last September.

Apart from that, we are told that the study in question was published by BMC Medicine. If so, it's not online yet. The only author named is Lauren Bandy, who is a PhD student.

There is slightly more information in the Daily Mail, whose headline is...

Sugar tax is WORKING: Britons' consumption of sugar has dropped by a teaspoon a day since tax on sweetened drinks was launched

It includes this nugget...

Since 2015 the sugar in soft drinks sold in the UK has dropped by 30 per cent – equivalent to a daily reduction of 4.6g per person. That is the equivalent of cutting out more than one teaspoon of sugar each day.

I'm not sure if this is an estimate from the study or a back-of-an-envelope calculation by the Mail. Either way, it is not true. The PHE figures show a 28.8% reduction in the average amount of sugar in soft drinks, but a smaller reduction of 21.6% in the amount of sugar actually consumed in soft drinks.

And the amount of sugar consumed in food increased...

overall there has been an increase from 722,976 tonnes of sugar sold at baseline to 741,700 tonnes in year 2 which represents an increase of 2.6%

Finally, let's remember that the consumption of sugary drinks was in steep decline long before the government started taxing them. (Obesity, on the other hand, continued to rise.)

As I recall, the idea behind the sugar tax was to reduce obesity rates, not to pressure companies into producing soft drinks that people don't want to buy. There is no evidence from the UK or anywhere else that taxing sugary drinks has the slightest impact on obesity or health, so talk of 'sweet success' is premature, to say the least.  

When the study surfaces, I will let you know.


My old mucker Kate Andrews has written more about this here and has updated my graph. It appears that sugary drink consumption actually rose in 2018. This is masked in the PHE report because they only compare 2018 with 2015. Will the curse of 'public health' ever be lifted?

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