UK sugar tax has ‘successfully driven reformulation and taken sugar out of children’s drinks’

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Milk-based drinks are currently excluded from the sugar tax - but there are calls to extend the tax to these drinks. Pic:getty/veselovaelena
Milk-based drinks are currently excluded from the sugar tax - but there are calls to extend the tax to these drinks. Pic:getty/veselovaelena

Related tags Sugar sugar tax SDIL Uk

England’s outgoing Chief Medical Officer says the Soft Drinks Industry Levy has been successful in reducing sugar in children’s drinks: and is calling for the levy to be extended to milk-based drinks.

The Soft Drink Industry Levy (SDIL) came into effect​ in April last year, as a tax on beverages with more than 5g sugar per 100ml.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, who was the Chief Medical Officer for England up to September 2019, also calls for free water refills and water fountains to be available in public places and food and drink retail sites to help reduce childhood obesity.

Time to solve childhood obesity 

In the report aimed at politicians and policy makers, Professor Davies says the government is ‘nowhere near’ achieving its goal of halving childhood obesity by 2030.

In a typical class of 30 in the last year of primary school (children aged 10-11), six children are obese and a further four are overweight – twice as many as thirty years ago, according to the report. This is twice as many as thirty years ago.

Released this morning, the report ‘Time to Solve Childhood Obesity’ makes a number of wide-reaching recommendations: including banning eating on public transport, reviewing tax rates on food and drinks to favour healthier options, and encouraging physical activity.

In the beverage industry, Professor Davies recommends extending the soft drinks industry levy to sweetened milk based drinks with added sugar.

Soft Drinks Industry Levy

  • Added sugar drinks with a total sugar content of 5g or more per 100ml face a levy of 18p/litre
  • The rate for drinks with 8g sugar or more per 100ml is 24p/litre. 

“The Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) has successfully driven reformulation and taken sugar out of children’s drinks,"​ she writes in the report. 

"There is no evidence that it has had a negative impact on deprived groups.

"Increases in the price of soft drinks due to the levy have been minimal and have helped fund school sport and breakfast clubs.

"Children living in the most deprived areas are benefitting most, because of their higher rates of tooth decay.”

Professor Davies’ recommendation to extend the levy to milk-based drinks supports a UK government report – released in July just hours before Boris Johnson was announced as Prime Minister – which says it is considering extending the sugar tax to soft drinks.

Boris Johnson, however, had previously pledged a review of ‘nanny state sin taxes’.

Fiscal measures to support healthier food

Davies says the current playing field in the food industry is not level: ‘It is too easy to make money from selling unhealthy food and too hard to make money from selling healthy food.’

But she says fiscal measure can help tip the balance in favour of healthy food production and sale.

“The Soft Drinks Industry Levy has taken significant quantities of sugar out of our children’s drinks and overall sales (in litres) of soft drinks have increased by 10.2% in 2018, after the levy’s introduction, compared to before the levy in 2015.

"At the same time the total sugar content within the soft drinks sold decreased by 21.6% removing 30,100 tonnes of sugar or 37.5 billion kilocalories from soft drinks a year in Great Britain.

'The soft drink industry as a whole has not been detrimentally affected'

"And sales went up and sugar consumption went down in every socio-economic group.”

She adds that the industry has responded well to the levy.

“Whilst the food industry was initially resistant to the idea, it has adapted well and largely responded by reformulating.

"The soft drinks industry, as a whole, has not been detrimentally affected – with sales increasing. The average price pass-on to families has been minimal.

"The SDIL is well supported by the public. It is noticeable that there has been marked reduction in sugar consumed from soft drinks, whilst there has been very limited if any change in other sugary products over the same period, where these other products have been subject only to a voluntary sugar reformulation programme.

"There is scope for greater use of fiscal measures, such as extending the Soft Drinks Industry Levy to sugary milk drinks.”

Advertising soft drinks

Professor Davies also wants to see a crack-down on advertising of less healthy products: phasing out all marketing, advertising and sponsorship of less health food and drink products (as defined by the revised Nutrient Profile Model) across all mediums – including online, at major events, or on public-sector-owned property.

“Everywhere children look they are dazzled by companies competing for their attention. In 2017, over £300m was spent on advertising soft drinks, confectionary and sweet and savoury snacks, compared to £16m spent on advertising fruit and vegetables. Adverts are everywhere, from bus stops to our mobile phones.”

The soft drinks industry spends £72m on advertising a year in the UK: accounting for 11% of annual expenditure on advertising across F&B.

British Soft Drinks Association

The British Soft Drinks Association has responded to Professor Davies' report, saying: “Measures designed to increase physical activity and promote parental responsibility have long been supported by soft drinks manufacturers.

"While it is satisfying to see the industry’s extensive reformulation work recognised, the report provides no statistical evidence to prove that the Soft Drinks Industry Levy has reduced childhood obesity.

"We remain doubtful about the efficacy of levies and advertising and promotional restrictions. We believe they jeopardise low- or no-sugar options being offered to consumers.”

The report 'Time to solve childhood obesity' can be found here.​ 

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