Sweet results in snack tax study

Research suggests that expanding the scope of sugar taxes to include certain foods will have a big impact on obesity, writes David Burrows.

Taxing sugary snacks such as biscuits, cakes and sweets might be more effective at reducing obesity levels than increasing the price of sugar-sweetened drinks, according to a study published in The BMJ.

Researchers used economic modelling to assess the impact of a 20% price increase on high-sugar snack foods in the UK. Their modelling was based on food purchase data for 36,324 UK households and National Diet and Nutrition Survey data for 2,544 adults.

They found that increasing the price of biscuits (cookies), cakes, chocolates and confectionery would have substantially more impact on the average weight change of adults than a similar price increase on sugary soft drinks: a 1,301g weight loss over one year compared with 203g for drinks.

What’s more, the model predicts that the impact of the price increase would be largest in low-income households with the highest rates of obesity, suggesting that taxing high-sugar snacks could help to reduce health inequalities driven by diet-related diseases.

The study had its limitations – not least the relatively short, one-year, timeframe over which weight changes were modelled. Another issue is that fiscal policies aimed at reducing sugar, salt, and saturated fat intake “might be useful, but they fail to incentivise the consumption of healthy foods”, noted experts in an accompanying editorial in the journal.

The team also used a 20% price increase, whereas taxes implemented to date tend to have been less than 10%. This could have overestimated the possible effects.

On the other hand, the authors’ models did not include whole cakes, or snacks purchased outside the home, so they may also have underestimated the effects.

Still, the data used was high quality and the expansion of a sugar tax to certain foods merits further consideration, the authors concluded.

“This analysis provides policymakers with estimates of the relative magnitude of plausible impacts if a … price increase in high-sugar snacks were to be implemented and suggests that this option is worthy of further research and consideration as part of an integrated approach to tackling obesity,” they wrote.

Could a sugary snack tax be the sweet spot in the UK’s obesity policy?

The success of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed. In September, Public Health England (PHE) reported on the impact of the soft drinks levy at the same time as the reduction of sugar in food – a decision that, as Footprint noted, exposed the chasm in progress between the two policies and strengthened the cause of campaigners calling for the government to take a tougher stance.

Indeed, the voluntary sugar reduction programme managed a 2.9% overall sugar reduction in retailer and manufacturer products and a 4.9% reduction across the out-of-home sector. The SDIL, meanwhile, has already driven a 28.8% reduction in total sugar per 100ml in take-home products and a 27.2% fall in average total sugar content for drinks consumed outside of the home.

Speaking at a Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum in October, Richard Sangster, head of obesity policy at the Department of Health and Social Care, called the progress under the SDIL “quite remarkable”.

He said: “I think what is interesting as well, if you look at the sales of soft drinks they have actually increased by 10%. So what you're seeing is sugar in those drinks going down but sales going up, and I think it’s a really interesting point, which suggests a win for health and a win for industry.”

However, during a panel debate he also touted the benefits of the voluntary approach, saying: “Actually giving businesses the flexibility to move and work on it at their pace is likely to get us further potentially than if you were to go down any other routes.”

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