Taxing Soft Drinks Won't Tackle Obesity - Here's What the Government Should Do Instead

10/08/2016 17:39 | Updated 11 August 2016
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Public health issues, such as tackling obesity from a young age, are hugely important.

In the UK 38% of both men and women are expected to be obese by 2025.

However, there is no evidence worldwide that a soft drinks tax will have any impact on levels of obesity.

Similar taxes in other countries have shown to have no, or very little, effect.

In Mexico, for example, there was a slight drop in consumption which led to 6 fewer calories a day per person following the introduction of a tax in 2014, but the following year sales began to rise again.

It's also worth pointing out that the proposal for a soft drinks tax in the UK was based on 2012 data and does not factor in the significant action taken by companies to reduce sugar consumption from their products over the last four years.

Now the Childhood Obesity Strategy has been delayed over the summer, we urge the new Chancellor to use this opportunity to take a fresh look at the evidence and more effective means of changing behaviour.

Obesity is not caused by a single ingredient or product

Sugar consumption in the UK is falling but obesity is still rising.

European countries with the lowest obesity levels - at least 5% lower than the UK - consume more sugar per head than the UK.

Consumption of regular soft drinks in the UK is already markedly down. The Defra Family Food Survey shows that purchases of regular soft drinks fell by 32% between 2010 and 2014, whilst low calorie drinks purchases increased by more than a third.

To look closer at the causes of obesity, the Government must understand more about patterns of behaviour, including levels of activity.

Only last month scientists from Cambridge University said sedentary lifestyles were now posing as great a threat to public health as smoking, and were causing more deaths than obesity.

Practical steps are needed in all areas if we are serious about finding solutions.

Recognise the action taken already within the sector

The soft drinks industry has seen a strong shift towards self-regulation and change.

The British Soft Drinks Association recently released its 2016 Annual Report, detailing how almost 60% of soft drinks now sold in the UK are low or no calorie.

By widening the availability of smaller packs, removing sugar from their drinks and significantly increasing the promotion of low and no calorie options soft drinks producers have reduced their consumers' sugar intake by over 16% since 2012 - and that's despite sales increasing by over 2%.

In 2015 the soft drinks industry became the only sector to set an ambitious target; to reduce calorie intake from soft drinks by 20% by 2020.

If we consider that in 2012 soft drinks accounted for 10.3% of take home sugar intake and now it's 8.3% (and falling) it makes the decision to target soft drinks even more questionable.

Global and UK studies have shown that reformulation and smaller portion sizes have a far bigger impact on obesity levels than tax and these are steps that we are already taking. It is an approach that should be rewarded rather than punished.

The tax will increase the economic burden on businesses and consumers

Our industry has committed publicly to reduce sugar further, but this work will be made harder to sustain by the significant commercial risk the soft drinks industry tax presents.

It should also be recognised that the previous Government expected the tax to be passed entirely onto consumers.

If retailers do this current estimates suggest it would add 48p to a two litre bottle of soft drink - effectively a 50% tax. This is a particular risk for smaller retailers.

In the face of great economic uncertainty this is no time for a measure that will impact negatively on companies and to higher prices for those who can least afford it whilst having no impact on levels of obesity.

This is why the new Government must take this opportunity to reconsider this tax and support UK businesses and consumers.

Invest in preventative public health measures

Most importantly, if the Government is serious about tackling obesity then it needs to put in place more preventative measures.

The Department of Health estimates that 70% of the NHS budget is spent on long-term conditions, yet only 4% of the total healthcare budget is spent on prevention.

McKinsey's recent studies into obesity highlight how education and personal responsibility are also critical elements of any programme aiming to reduce obesity.

We recognise the obesity is a complicated problem and we want to work with the government to find solutions which work.

As an industry we've invested and worked to change our products based on the evidence. If the Government wants to tackle obesity effectively, it should do the same.