Sugary drinks tax is a sweet success

The first independent and direct evaluation of the impact of the UK's Soft Drinks Industry Levy has indicated a dramatic fall in levels of sugar in drinks. Children's Food Campaign responds.


The first direct evaluation of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy impact on drinks formulation shows clear evidence of manufacturers lowering sugar levels in drinks in response to the introduction of the tax.

According to independent researchers from an academic consortium led by the University of Oxford, when the Chancellor announced plans to introduce the levy, around 52% of eligible soft drinks contained 5g or more sugar per 100ml were liable for the tax. The sugary drinks tax came into force in April 2018 and by February 2019, only 15% of soft drinks were still liable. Researchers found that most of the drinks reformulation took place before the tax was live. On the 100 days either side of the implementation date (6 April 2018), 11% of the eligible drinks changed sugar content so that they were no longer liable.

The Children's Food Campaign, along with Obesity Health Alliance and Jamie Oliver's organisation, coordinated the public campaign which led to the introduction of the sugary drinks tax in 2018. Co-ordinator of the campaign Barbara Crowther says,

"This is sweet success for the Soft Drinks Industry Levy - it is doing exactly what it was designed to. Soft drinks have been the biggest single source of sugar in children's diets, and the levy has clearly contributed to a pace of sugar reduction far ahead of any voluntary efforts. It's time now for the government to build on this success, and close the loophole in the range of drinks liable for the levy and extend the tax to milkshakes, as we argued from the very beginning.

"In addition to this evidence of reduction of sugar levels, the soft drinks levy is also adding an estimated £340 million to Treasury coffers each year, for investment in children's health. At a time that local public health and school food programmes urgently need investment, we want to see this sugary drink money being put to good use, and hope Government will confirm exactly where it is being invested." 

Dr Pete Scarborough, associate professor at the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, who led the analysis says,

"This research provides robust evidence that taxes can be used to improve the healthiness of food, and that they have a bigger influence on the food industry than voluntary measures, such as the government’s public health responsibility deal, or other non-fiscal interventions such as food labelling. The levy is applied to a relatively small proportion of soft drinks, and policymakers should consider extending it to drinks that are currently exempt, such as milk-based drinks." 

Professor Martin White of the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, Chief Investigator for the SDIL evaluation, says:

‘These are the first results from our independent evaluation of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and focus on the reformulation efforts of soft drinks companies. The findings suggest that the levy has been effective in prompting industry reformulation to reduce sugar content of many soft drinks. However, the marketing strategies of soft drinks manufacturers compared to supermarkets vary considerably, with differences in sugar content, sizes and prices of drinks as a result of the levy. Further research is looking at how these changes affect purchases and consumption of soft drinks and potential health impacts among the public, as well as impacts on businesses and the economy. These will be reported over the next year as they become available.’

The research is being published in the February edition of PLoS Medicine, and was conducted by teams at the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Exeter, Warwick and Bath Universities. It is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)


For more information

Read the evaluation paper published in PLoS Medicine 

Read the Sustain/Children's Food Campaign report "How the sugary drinks tax was won"


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