Taxing sugary drinks 'would cut obesity'
1st November 2013 - Imposing a 20% tax on sugary drinks would reduce the number of obese adults in the UK by 180,000, researchers say.
The study, published on bmj.com, says although this is a relatively "modest" effect, the biggest consumers of these drinks aged 16 to 29 would be impacted the most.
Call for duty
Regular consumption of sugar sweetened drinks is known to increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.
This has led a number of health and medical groups to campaign for a fizzy drinks tax.
In February this year the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges urged the UK to pilot and monitor a one year 20% tax on sugary drinks to test the effect on consumer demand.
The tax was one of ten recommendations made by the Academy in its report “Measuring up - the medical profession's prescription for the nation's obesity crisis”. The ten recommendations represent an action plan of steps they believe must be taken to make real inroads into tackling the obesity crisis in the UK.
The food and farming charity Sustain suggested that most of the revenue raised each year from a levy could be channelled into a special fund to improve children's health.
As the effect on health of a sugar sweetened drink tax was uncertain, researchers at the universities of Oxford and Reading set out to estimate the impact that 20% duty would have on obesity in the UK - and to understand the health effect on different income groups.
Using data from surveys of dietary purchases, the price of drinks, and body weight, they estimate that a 20% sales tax on sugar sweetened drinks would reduce the number of obese adults in the UK by 180,000 (1.3%) and the number who are overweight by 285,000 (0.9%).
They also found that health gains would be similar across all income groups, but would decline with age. As the major consumers of sugar sweetened drinks, young people under the age of 30 would experience the greatest reductions in obesity.
The tax would be expected to raise £276m each year and would reduce consumption of sugar sweetened drinks by around 15%.
This revenue, say the authors, could be used to increase NHS funding during a period of budget restrictions or to subsidise foods with health benefits, such as fruit and vegetables.
They conclude that taxation of sugar sweetened drinks "is a promising population measure to target population obesity, particularly among younger adults". However, they stress that it "should not be seen as a panacea" and say further work is needed to clarify the exact levels of sugar sweetened drink consumption in the UK.
In an accompanying editorial, Professor Jason Block of Harvard Medical School in the US writes: "This study provides evidence that a 20% tax on sugary drinks can work." However, he adds: "The more pressing question is whether policy makers can implement a tax this high."
Professor Block says the proposal by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges to pilot a 20% fizzy drinks tax for a year "would be a good start".