Sugar tax more effective than voluntary targets

Friday 20th September 2019

A tax on sugary drinks has been ten times more effective than voluntary commitments by the food industry to make products healthier, a report has found.

A levy on high-sugar soft drinks introduced in 2015 led to an average fall in sugar content of nearly a third.

But an optional reduction programme in which producers were asked to make foods less sweet led a fall of just 3% over the same period, meaning a sugar reduction target is likely to be missed.

A child health expert said the findings “reveal the limits of self-regulation.”

In Scotland, more than six in ten adults are thought to be overweight or obese. More than one in three 12-year olds are overweight and one in five are obese.

Public Health England, which is responsible for pushing UK-wide food industry changes, wants manufacturers to reduce average sugar content by 20% across a range of sweet treats.

Businesses are asked to reduce sugar levels, make portions smaller or encourage customers to switch to low sugar alternatives.

Although there were some successes for products like yoghurts and cereals, sugar content in fare like puddings, sweets and chocolate remained stubbornly high.

More progress is through to have been made in food consumed in restaurants, pubs and cafes – though experts say the data is not clear.

Overall, sugar in sweetened products eaten out of home fell by 5%.

But this is still far short of the 29% reduction fall on soft drinks subject to a sugar tax.

Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England, said: “We are seeing some encouraging progress from the food industry. Our second year report shows some food categories reducing sugar faster than others but this is realistic at this early stage.

“We are confident that the industry as a whole understands their responsibility to step up and deliver for children and their families.”

But Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, described the report as a “mixed bag”.

He said: “The soft drinks levy is a success story and shows that government can make a significant difference when it compels the food industry to act in the interests of child health.

“On the other hand - the results of the voluntary sugar reduction programme reveal the limits of self-regulation. While there are pockets of progress, industry is largely asleep at the wheel. It is time for a wake-up call. One in three children are overweight or obese by age 11 and the food industry has a major role to play in helping us turn this around.

“If industry fails to act for child health, then we look forward to the introduction of mandatory sugar reduction targets in 2020.”

Katharine Jenner of Action on Sugar said: “Whilst it’s encouraging to learn that both sugary yoghurts and cereals have been successful in the sugar reduction programme proving that reformulation is easily achievable, it is shameful that other manufacturers are dragging their heels and will likely fail to meet the 20% target. Every year more and more children are becoming obese.

However Action on Sugar says the government was "brave" to introduce the sugar levy. 

Ms Jenner added: "This demonstrates that when properly motivated, the food industry can give us healthier options. It is imperative that this momentum and levy continues and is applied to calorie-dense processed foods and milk-based drinks that meet an agreed criterion set by the government. Fat is a bigger contributor to calories in the diet than sugar and therefore essential that manufacturers are encouraged to reduce both in order to tackle the UK’s unhealthy eating habits and the excessive calorie intake.”