Global examples feed arguments for and against sugar tax

No ‘robust’ evidence to show what effects policies have on consumption and health

Both sides of the sugar-tax debate point to the international experience as a reason for and against the introduction of a levy in Ireland.

With varied policies and success, health strategies around the world have included everything from sugar-sweetened drinks to chocolate, ice-cream and jam.

Policy accompanies a growing appreciation of the dangers of sugar consumption, obesity and the kinds of chronic diseases associated with poor diets.

But for every argument there is a counter argument and the experience and approach of varying countries differs.


The UK’s duel-band policy on sugar-sweetened drinks, announced this week, will target sugar content in products above both 5g and 8g per 100 millilitres and aims to raise about €662 million a year.

Pre-policy research by Public Health England found increasing the price of high-sugar products reduced purchase levels proportionate to the tax rate.

"There is reasonably consistent evidence from both experimental studies and data from countries that have introduced taxes that consumers can respond to changes in food and drink prices," said its report, Sugar Reduction: From Evidence into Action.

It found tax-related reductions in sales in Norway, Finland, Hungary and France.

A 10 per cent tax in Mexico led to an average 6 per cent reduction in sales of sugar-sweetened drinks in 2014. The figure was about 9 per cent for lower socioeconomic households.

Chronic disease

Mexico is held as an exemplar for many pro-tax advocates. It had the most deaths from chronic disease associated with consuming sugar-sweetened drinks while in the seven years between 1999 and 2006 obesity among children rose by an unparalleled 40 per cent.

However, as Public Health England outlines, there is no “robust” evidence to show what effects existing tax policies have on consumption or health. There are just “some indications” of relative decreases in purchasing of between 4 and 10 per cent.

The policies vary. Up to 39 states in the US have taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks to a maximum of 7 per cent. In 2000, Australia introduced a 10 per cent levy on sugar-sweetened drinks, confectionary, biscuits and baking products.

In Europe, Norway targeted sugar-sweetened drinks, chocolate and sweets in 1981 (and increased in 2011) with varying levels of tax and Finland applied similar tariffs in 2011 (updated in 2012 and 2014).

Since 2012, France has targeted sugar-sweetened and energy drinks. Hungary introduced wide-ranging policy in 2011 covering an array of products such as energy drinks (as well as sugar-sweetened drinks), salty snacks and jam.

However, if Mexico is considered a success, campaigners against “fat tax” look to the Danish experience. Its policies on products with certain levels of saturated fat as well as meat, dairy, soft drinks, ice-cream and sweets were repealed in 2012 after just one year.

The Economist called it one of Denmark's "most hated taxes". Intended to rein in consumption of unhealthy foods, it ended up sucking in things such as gourmet cheese.

“Critics saw the tax as the worst excesses of the nanny state,” the magazine said, marking a policy meltdown that would delight opponents.

Irish lobby against tax

“Our view is that it’s certainly very, very patchy,” said Paul Kelly, director of the Food and Drink Industry Ireland lobby, of the international experience. It promises to fight similar moves in Ireland. “There are a lot of problems with it. Where there has been an impact it has been very, very small.”

Mr Kelly pointed out that Finland was about to abolish its tax on ice-cream and sweets following a legal challenge upheld by the European Commission (it will go by the start of next year).

The Danish system fell, he said, "because people were going across the border to Germany and food trade unions identified job losses".

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times