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Campaigners celebrate sugar reduction success for soft drinks industry levy

Children's Food Campaign responds to new research which reveals that, one year after implementation, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy had successfully reduced the amounts of sugar contained in soft drinks being bought by households each week. 

Credit: Pexels

Credit: Pexels

New research from the University of Cambridge MRC Epidemiology Unit released on 11 March has shown that the sugary drinks tax has succeeded in reducing the amounts of sugar contained in soft drinks, despite the overall sales of drinks being unaffected.

The new research explores family purchasing data for over 22,000 households and finds that:

  • the Soft Drinks Industry Levy had contributed to a reduction in the amounts of sugar contained in soft drinks equivalent to almost 30g of sugar per household per week. 
  • this is equivalent to a reduction in sugar consumption of 12.5 grams per person per week, or each person replacing one 250ml serving of a sugary drink every week with a sugar free alternative.
  • overall the levels of sugar contained in soft drinks sales has fallen by 10%. 

Responding to the findings, Children's Food Campaign Co-ordinator Barbara Crowther says: 

"This is yet more evidence that the Soft Drinks Industry Levy has delivered the win-win for business, for government and for health. The drop in sugar is equivalent to over 5000 calories per year per household - if we imagine that across millions of families, it is significant. It's also raising over a third of a billion pounds in revenues for investment in children's health. We call on the Government to now consider the other sources of excess calories, fat, salt and sugar in our diets as part of future obesity plans, and whether similar fiscal incentives for business to reformulate and produce healthier food and drink could now be applied. Now, more than ever, recognising the increased risks associated with obesity for severe impacts of Covid-19, and the surge in unhealthy snacking that has occurred during lockdown, there is a real opportunity to go further in using the tax system to drive more positive change in our food environment.

The researchers also suggest that sugar consumption could be reduced further by extending the tax to include confectionery and other high sugar foods.

Associate Professor Peter Scarborough, from Oxford University, who worked with the research team said:

"The reduction in sugar consumption as a result of both changes in industry and consumer behaviour has demonstrated that taxation of food and drinks can lead to positive nutritional outcomes." 

The UK Government introduced the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL), also known as the ‘Sugary Drinks Tax’, in April 2018 to help tackle childhood obesity. This applied a tax to soft drinks containing 5 grams or more of added sugar per 100 millilitres, with a higher rate for drinks with 8 grams or more per 100 millilitres.  

Previously, research had found that reformulation by the soft drinks industry to remove sugar in order to lower tax liabilities had resulted in a fall in the number of soft drinks with sugar levels over the tax threshold from 49% to 15%.

Most reformulation took place prior to, or in the first year, of the implementation of the SDIL, and has since slowed down. The recent Spring Budget did not consider any further expansion or uprating of charging bands for the SDIL, in order to trigger further business reformulation, despite calls from Sustain's Children's Food Campaign to push further.

Studies elsewhere have suggested that regular sugary drink consumption increases the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. This suggests that the impact of the SDIL is likely to lead to considerable public health gains in the future. 

Besides University of Cambridge, the study involved researchers from the Nuffield Department of Population Health (Oxford University), London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the University of Bath and the University of Exeter. 

Children's Food Campaign: Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.

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