Sugar Bowl, Pears, and Blue Cup

Will the Sugar Tax Fad Have an Effect on Obesity?

Resistance to public health policies is the reason that obesity is growing relentlessly.
Especially resistance to a sugar tax.

That deadpan comment from a health and obesity expert is impressive, opinionated speculation. It came at a recent roundtable of experts to explore strategies for reducing obesity. And the pitch is working. All over the world, the movement to tax sugar is gaining momentum as a core strategy for promoting health and fighting obesity.

A Gap Between Science and Talking Points

Unfortunately, we see a huge gap between talking points on sugar taxes and scientific observations. The Australian Medical Association says a tax on sugar sweetened beverages is a priority. The urgent health threat of obesity is the reason.

But the data on sugar consumption and obesity in Australia suggest that declining sugar consumption may have little effect on obesity there:

In Australia, four independent data sets confirmed shorter- and longer-term declines in the availability and intake of added sugars, including those contributed by SSBs. The findings challenge the widespread belief that energy from added sugars or sugars in solution are uniquely linked to the prevalence of obesity.

In JAMA this month, Lisa Powell and Matthew Maciejewski write that sugary drink taxes will remain controversial for some time. That’s because their effects on health are still unknown.

Success in Berkeley and Mexico?

More gaps show up in the results of tax programs in Berkeley and Mexico. Health reporters tell us that the Berkeley soda tax is “a sweet success.” But the study prompting that claim includes no data on health outcomes. What’s more, the authors note, Berkeley wasn’t drinking much soda to begin with.

And now, researchers from Duke University have published a closer look. They found little evidence of an effect on soda consumption in Berkeley. People compensated by purchasing soda outside of Berkeley.

Even more daunting is the experience in Mexico. Back in 2013, Mexico implemented an aggressive policy of taxing sugary drinks plus junk foods. The word in the popular press is that it’s a big success. But that’s based solely on sales of soda and junk food. More taxes mean higher prices and lower sales.

But if you look at obesity rates, you’ll see nothing. In 2016, the rate kept climbing in Mexico. Advocates for sugar taxes say that’s to be expected. Changing the trends “will take decades” they say. Besides, we shouldn’t expect a sugar tax to change everything all by itself.

In other words, keep the faith. We have more tricks up our sleeve. Surely this will work. Eventually.

Click here to read further perspective from the Atlantic and here for perspective from USA Today.

Sugar Bowl, Pears, and Blue Cup; Painting by Paul Cezanne / WikiArt

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


January 31, 2018