A welcome sweetener?

4 March 2019

In these days of austerity, it’s good to know that, in the first 6 months since its introduction last year, the new sugary drinks levy has yielded an estimated £154m in additional government revenue. This money will go towards grants for children’s exercise and healthy eating. To put things in perspective, the NHS spent over £1bn on prescriptions alone for diabetes last year, not to mention the other costs of treating it.

The aim of the tax, or ‘soft drinks industry levy’, is to encourage soft-drink producers to reduce the amount of sugar in their drinks and create a commercial environment in which consumers can make healthier choices. It is hoped this will also help tackle childhood obesity. For most sugary drinks, the levy amounts to an extra 24p per litre.

Although many drinks manufacturers have switched to a lower-sugar formula, the impact of this change on consumers seems to have been limited. Market research data from Nielsen indicate that around three-fifths of people haven’t changed their purchasing behaviour significantly since the levy was introduced. We still drink an average of about 2L a week.

This week, Jean Adams and colleagues report in BMJ Open on a baseline survey of over 3,000 people aged 18–64 years. This survey was carried out before the levy came into force. It aimed to find out what people know and think about soft drinks, what level of support there is for the levy, and how effective people think it will be. The main findings were:

  • Most participants supported the sugary drinks levy (70%) and believed it would be effective (71%). 
  • People’s awareness of the potential negative effects of sugary drinks is already high. Nine out of ten people (90%) believed that consuming sugary drinks increases the risk of obesity.
  • Only a little over half (54%) said that it was important to them to try not to drink sugary drinks, and around three-fifths (62%) said that sugary drinks taste good.

Clearly, most of us already know that sugary drinks are bad for us, but many of us don’t think it’s important to change what we drink. This seems to me to highlight that we need to view sugary drinks as part of a wider, complex system in which knowledge and behaviour are not perfectly aligned, and a range of other contextual factors influence what we eat and drink.

Could it be that the hot weather last summer led to higher consumption of sugary drinks? To what extent do we drink what our friends drink, what we can afford, or what is available at the corner shop? What other social and economic factors influence our attitudes, social norms and behaviours in relation to sugary drinks?

The sugary drinks levy and other incentives for reformulation are a potential way of creating an environment in which people are presented with healthier options, while also bringing in additional government revenue. It will be interesting to see, when the results of the follow-up survey are available later in the year, how far people’s attitudes to sugary drinks have changed in 12 months, and whether more of us try to cut down on how much we drink.

A levy on sugary drinks will not be the only lever we need to pull to create an environment in which we make healthy choices, but the more we can do to reduce the amount of sugary drinks we drink, the better for our health.

Liz Cairncross is a Research Manager at the Health Foundation.
Cross-sectional analysis of the International Food Policy Study was carried out by the Centre for Diet & Activity Research (CEDAR) at the University of Cambridge, funded by the Health Foundation.

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