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Sugar is now considered as a main part of the cause of the worldwide obesity epidemic.

Around the world, average sugar consumption continues to increase. At the same time governments and health authorities struggle to find way to persuade people to reduce consumption.

In May 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report on the Fiscal Policies for Diet and Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases,1 which basically advised that raising the retail price of sugary drinks by 20% will result in a reduction in consumption. They also advised that reducing the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables by 10 to 30% while at the same time increasing the cost of sugary beverages, would have the greatest impact on improving diet. While many locations throughout the world have readily taken up measures to warn consumers about, or tax, sugar and sugary drinks, reducing the cost of fruits and vegetables is not nearly as popular.

Setting The Scene in the UK

The United Kingdom (UK), has been using warnings such as “with sugars and sweeteners”2 and stoplight information, green – good and red – high, with amber in between,3 to convince consumers to eat fewer items that are not as good for them and to eat more of those that are good for them. However, the National Health Service (NHS) public notification through social media and blogs, coupled with the warnings appears not to have been as effective as desired in reducing the sugar consumption, especially for 4 to 18-year-olds. While Britons have been advised that sugar should only be 5% of one’s diet the 4 to 18 year old age group consumes sugar at an average of 13.4% of their diet. It becomes worse for 11 to 18-year-olds with their average diet comprising 15.2% sugar.4

Because the warnings and media notifications haven’t produced the results that were anticipated, the UK government will now decide whether to tax sugary drinks. The tax, which will apply to drinks with 5g of sugar per 100ml exclusive of fruit juice and milkshakes, is expected to raise GBP 285 million. This money will be used to promote exercise in schools.5

Taxes, warnings, or not allowing sugary beverages to be displayed/sold in certain areas, in order to reduce the intake of sugar is happening in other countries too.

American Interventions 

In the United States of America, the County of San Francisco requires the statement “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco”,6 to be placed with all ads including billboards. Meanwhile, in the City of Philadelphia, starting on January 1, 2017, non-fruit drinks, flavored water, energy drinks, pre-sweetened coffee or tea, and non-alcoholic beverages containing sugar or artificial sweetener will be taxed.Exceptions will be made if the product contains more than 50% milk, fruit or vegetable juice, or is infant formula. Results from the recent US elections have created more locations in the US that are taxing soda. In California, the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Albany have approved a tax of a penny per fluid ounce (fl. oz.) and in Colorado, the city of Boulder approved a tax of two cents per fl. oz.8 New York City attempted to ban all sugary drinks more than 16 fl. oz.9 from being sold by food service operations. This ban would have excluded drinks with more than 70% fruit juices, sodas with artificial sweeteners, drinks with at least 50% milk or milk substitute, and alcoholic beverages. This ban never happened because the courts decided that the New York City Board of Health had exceeded the scope of its regulatory authority. 

Sometimes, while the health benefits of sugar reduction are part of a regulatory change there are extra incentives for taxing these products. Recently, Cook County Board recently voted on and approved a penny per ounce tax on sugary drinks. While they stated the health benefits, they also clearly indicated that the revenues raised by the tax would help with a budgeted shortfall.10 This regressive tax on working families will result in higher food costs if consumption doesn’t change; it will also help Cook County raise about USD 74.6 million in 2017.

Taxing Times in Mexico

Since the buying of sugary drinks is permitted and warnings to the public have not produced much change, are taxes the solution? In January 2014, Mexico issued a tax on sodas which resulted in a 12% reduction in purchases. This is significant, because before the tax was introduced the average Mexican consumed eight times more of a global soda brand than the worldwide average.11 Mexico has confirmed that following the introduction of the tax, consumption of untaxed products such as milk and bottled water increased. More than 70% of Mexico’s population is overweight or obese. Unfortunately, the reduction in soda consumption didn’t correlate with a definite calorie reduction – in reality, the population appear to have replaced calories lost from sodas with other calories from other sources. This happened even though at the same time as taxing sugary drinks they also taxed calorie rich foods, those with more than 275 calories per 100g.12

There are other countries, for example Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Finland, Hungary, Mauritius, the Philippines and Thailand that all have designed some warnings, restrictions or taxes on sugary beverages and non-essential energy dense foods. Many other countries are also evaluating warnings and taxation as methods to reverse the obesity trend. For those countries that have used taxation, the poorest members of their populations have reduced their sugary drinks purchases more than average wage earners.

Global Health Issue 

The world population is becoming more overweight and obese, affecting the health of many, as diabetes claimed 1.5 million deaths in 2012. Governments are taking action because diseases arising from weight gain and obesity impact society as a whole. We know that excess fat, sugar and sodium/salt are bad for us, but efforts also must be taken to encourage people to adopt healthy eating habits and a healthy lifestyle.

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For further information contact: 

Jim Cook 
Global Food Inspection Technical Manager 
t: +1 973-461-1493

References:

Fiscal Policies for Diet and Prevention of Non Communicable Diseases (PDF)
Food Labelling and Packaging - GOV.UK 
Food Labelling - Live Well - NHS Choices
Sugar Warnings Not Reduced Consumption Public Health England, Figures Show l Society l The Guardian
Sugar Tax Survives in 'watered-down' Obesity Strategy l The Week UK
Big Sodas Loses Fight to Stop San Francisco's Sugar Warning Labels Law
Philadelphia Becomes 1st Major U.S. City to Pass A Tax on Soda: The Tow-Way: NPR
Soda Taxes Spread After Votes in Four U.S. Cities l Reuters
New York Citys Large Soda Ban is Officially Dead
10 Cook Country, Home to Chicago, Approved Sugar Tax in Growing Trend l Reuters
11 Mexico Soda Tax is Beating Expectations in Reducing Soft Drink Sales
12 National Treasury Republic of South Africa (PDF)