Still Life with Sugar

Mixed Results on Sugar in the UK

Unsuccessful success is one way to describe the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) in the UK. Many people, like Susan Jebb and Theresa Marteau, call this tax on sugary beverages a success. “The benefit of fiscal intervention is clear,” they say. People are buying less sugar in drinks. In fact, they’re buying about 22 percent less. But the bad news is that they’re buying more sugar in everything else. Sugar in the UK is going up, not down.

Symbolism and the Big Picture

Back in 2016, advocates were dancing with joy when Parliament passed the sugary drinks tax. At the time, we wondered if it would serve as potent symbolism or merely another leaky sandbag on the anti-obesity levee. Right now, it seems a little leaky. A new report from Public Health England looks at the big picture and it’s decidedly mixed.

The big success is reformulation that this tax has brought in soft drinks. Sugar content is down by 29 percent. No doubt about it, that’s huge. And it has brought down the consumption of sugar in drinks.

But that’s just one part of the picture. Sugar reduction across the board is a key part of the UK action plan for reducing childhood obesity. The goal was to reduce consumption of sugar in all foods and beverages by 2020, compared to 2015. Instead, consumption through 2018 is up by 2.9%.

Tax Cakes and Puddings?

Of course, one response might be to tax the sugar in cakes, puddings, and confections. Advocates project glorious success from doing so. It’s also possible that people will find ways to get their sugar elsewhere. In any event, we doubt that ever more taxes on ever more food will prove to be popular. Taxing people into good health might work for tobacco. You don’t need it. But we have our doubts that taxes on food will work out in the same way. People adapt and find their calories and consumptive pleasures elsewhere. Perverse and unintended consequences follow.

On top of that, popular resistance can prove to be quite a problem. Neither ineffective nor unpopular strategies do much for reversing the harms of obesity to public health.

Click here for the new report from Public Health England. Here and here you can find further reporting.

Still Life with Sugar, painting by Paul Cezanne / WikiArt

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September 22, 2019

One Response to “Mixed Results on Sugar in the UK”

  1. September 22, 2019 at 9:52 am, Mary-Jo said:

    Not surprised. The cereal aisle alone probably has enough sugar to make up for the decreased sugar consumption from SSBs. Biscuits (cookies in the USA) are pretty ubiquitous and consumed regularly with endless cups of tea. And then, there’s the sugary coffee drinks at every corner. I’m also always checking how much sugar is in gluten-free prepackaged foods and it’s quite high. These gf offerings have just skyrocketed in the past few years. So, plenty of sugar to compensate. Can we ever go back to normal size coffee servings without all the syrups and toppings?