Justification for a tax on sugary drinks

Tackling obesity is a complex tax but latest evidence underlines the health gain from a levy

 

The latest research on sugar tax suggests that a levy on sugary drinks – due to be introduced here and in Britain in 2018 – will help reduce obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. Oxford University researchers found that a food industry response focused on reducing sugar content is likely to have the greatest impact on health.

The authors estimate that a reduction of 30 per cent in the sugar content of all high-sugar drinks and a 15 per cent reduction in mid-sugar drinks in the UK could result in 144,000 fewer adults and children with obesity; 19,000 fewer cases of Type 2 diabetes a year; and 269,000 fewer teeth suffering from decay annually. Clearly, a similar health gain could be expected in the Irish context – the timing for the introduction of an Irish sugar tax is likely to coincide with that of the UK.

Prof Richard Tiffin, co-author of the study published in the journal Lancet Public Health said the levy showed a “modest but significant impact” on health. However the authors acknowledged that a tax on soft drinks is just one element of a campaign to tackle obesity levels. Irish obesity expert Prof Donal O’Shea has described a sugar tax as “the single most important thing the Government can do” if it wishes to tackle the obesity crisis. He estimates it could reduce the number of obese Irish adults by 22,000 within three years. Almost one quarter of Irish people are obese, with a body mass index (BMI) in excess of 30.

With the latest research suggesting a sugar levy will cut calorie intake by 5 kcal per day (the equivalent amount of energy expended by one minute of brisk walking) some nutritionists remain cautious about predicted improvements arising from a tax. The problem of obesity is highly complex. A study published earlier this year by Canadian, US and Irish researchers found that the body interprets a sudden loss of weight as a threat to survival and responds by engaging the immune system as a defence mechanism.

But the Oxford research reinforces the Government decision to enact a sugar tax, while reminding us that a solution to the obesity crisis is a complex and lengthy one.

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