Sugary drink tax of 20% would cut obesity by 1.3%, researchers find

UK study shows greatest benefits for people aged under 30

A 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks in the UK would cut the nation’s obesity rate by 1.3 per cent. Photograph: PA Wire

A 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks in the UK would cut the nation’s obesity rate by 1.3 per cent. Photograph: PA Wire

Fri, Nov 1, 2013, 09:11

A 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks in the UK would cut the nation’s obesity rate by 1.3 per cent, with the greatest benefit for people under 30, a study found.

The tax, proposed by the UK’s Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, would result in about 180,000 fewer adults with a body mass index of 30 or more, researchers from the universities of Oxford and Reading wrote in the journal BMJ.

Among people ages 16 to 30, who are the greatest consumers of sugary drinks, the tax would reduce obesity by 7.6 per cent, the study showed.

About 26 per cent of adults in the UK are obese, the second-highest rate in Europe behind Hungary, which has adopted taxes on salt and sugar.

While other European nations and some US states tax soft drinks, most levies are less than 10 per cent.

The findings show that while a tax wouldn’t be a panacea, it could help reduce the diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay linked with the drinks, the authors wrote.

“The more pressing question is whether policy makers can implement a tax this high,” Jason Block, an assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School’s obesity prevention program in Boston, wrote in comments accompanying the study.

“We now need policy makers to act and provide opportunities for real-world evidence.”

The study used data from household spending and diet surveys, together with systems for estimating the effect of tax increases on drink purchases, and changes in energy intake on body mass index.

Body mass index is a measure of body fat, calculated by using a person’s weight and height. Based on their findings, the researchers predicted that the tax would reduce the number of overweight people, defined as those with a BMI of 25 or more, by 285,000, or 0.9 per cent.

It would also raise 276 million pounds (€325m) a year in revenue and reduce consumption of concentrated sugar- sweetened drinks by 15 per cent, according to the study. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which represents about 220,000 British doctors, in February proposed testing the tax for a year as one of 10 recommendations for curbing obesity.

The UK government’s health department said companies including Tesco Plc and Coca-Cola Co. have agreed to reduce sugar in their drinks under a voluntary plan aimed at improving public health.

“The voluntary action we have put in place will help people to make healthier choices but we keep all international evidence under review,” the department said in an e-mailed statement.

Taxing soft drinks won’t curb obesity, partly because its causes are complex, Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, said in an e-mailed statement. “Trying to blame one set of products is misguided, particularly when they comprise a mere 2 per cent of calories in the average diet,” he said.