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Tax big but spend wisely, finds research on sugar levies

Post a commentBy David Burrows , 18-Jul-2017

© iStock/elenachaykina
© iStock/elenachaykina

Health taxes that add 20% to the price of products are likely to be effective, but policymakers need to be transparent about where revenues end up, according to new research.

In a study of 91 peer-reviewed papers and 11 grey-literature studies, experts at the University of Edinburgh assessed how taxes can reduce consumption of target products, generate revenue and become “politically sustainable”.


In all, 26 studies found either positive, negative or no health impacts from the charges. Of these, 21 showed a positive impact.

They also found 18 papers that identified health impacts by tax rate and product. From this they concluded that the “evidence in support of applying taxes to unhealthy products is strongest for taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages [SSBs] set at a rate of 20% or more of the price. […] high tax rates on sugar-sweetened beverages are likely to have a positive impact on health behaviours and outcomes.”

Taken collectively, the reviewed studies also “suggest there is considerable evidence that taxes on SSBs and unhealthy food products can have positive health impacts.”

There was a caveat, however: the majority of the research was based on modelling or experiments involving “potential” taxes. Writing in the journal BMC Public Health, the authors suggested there were enough health taxes in place to determine whether they are working or not.

Taxes on salt, sugar and/or fat are in place in Finland, Latvia, France, Portugal and Hungary, for instance. More countries are expected to introduce similar fiscal measures in the coming months .

The EU’s health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis has said the measures can be a “very powerful” tool for tackling health issues , including obesity. Many food manufacturers are far from keen on such ingredient taxes, however.

The Edinburgh experts, led by Alexandra Wright, said “policy actors need to be clear about the primary goal of any health tax and frame the tax accordingly – not doing so leaves taxes vulnerable to hostile lobbying”.

Earmarking the revenue from health taxes for specific purposes – such as funding health system improvements or obesity prevention – can also increase public and political support for taxes, they said. Policymakers “need to be clear about the primary goal of any health tax and frame the tax accordingly”.

The team also found that incorporating the tax into the price of the products on shelf – as some countries in Europe have done – could work better than putting the charge on the sales receipt as a non-itemised addition to the bill.

The latter is “likely to result in a lower level of transparency of the gross price of an individual product, and less sensitivity to tax-related price changes”. Wright and her team cited examples of sugary drinks taxes in two US states (Maine and Ohio) that took this approach and which didn’t result in a significant reduction in consumption levels.

Source: BMC Public Health

“Policy lessons from health taxes: a systematic review of empirical studies.”

Authors: A. Wright. K.E. Smith and M. Hellowell.

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