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The real cost of a bag of sugar – will the sugar tax make a difference?

Posted on 24 April 2018

The long debated sugar tax (or the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, to be precise) has arrived, launching earlier this month on 6th April. But what does it actually mean? And will it really make a difference to the obesity crisis?

So what does the sugar tax mean for you?

Essentially, the sugar tax means that the manufacturers of some sugary drinks will be subject to a levy on their products containing 5g or more of added sugar (i.e. not naturally occurring) per 100ml, with an additional tax on drinks containing more than 8g sugar per 100ml.

Companies have the choice of absorbing the cost, or passing the increase onto the consumer. So far it seems the latter is the most common solution.

You will pay 18p more per litre for drinks containing 5-7.9g of sugar, and an extra 24p/litre for drinks with the highest sugar content.

Diet and sugar-free drinks are unaffected by the levy, as are milk, juice and alcohol.

Why do we need it?

There is no denying that sugar is playing a big part in the obesity crisis. Various researchers and groups, such as the British Medical Association, have been calling on the government for years to introduce a tax on high-sugar food and drinks.

A 2015 University of Cambridge study found that as many as 8,000 cases of type 2 diabetes a year were linked to the consumption of sugary drinks.

The problem is most pronounced in our children’s generation. The average British child consumes three times more sugar than they should. In fact, a typical 330ml can of ‘full-fat’ cola contains 35g of added sugar. The recommended maximum daily sugar intake for those aged 11+ is just 30g.

In addition to tackling the country’s health problems, the tax is predicted to bring in £240m per year in additional revenue to the government, funds which have been earmarked for the Department of Education.

Will the tax actually make a difference?

Concerns have been raised as to whether the price increase will actually deter consumers from purchasing high sugar drinks, and whether the tax actually goes far enough to curb sugar consumption.

Dr Daniel Bailey, a nutrition expert from the University of Bedfordshire said, “We could just end up with consumers buying the same amount but paying more.”

Research by Mintel also found that less than half of Brits said the tax would encourage them to cut-back on unhealthy products.

Since the levy only applies to drinks, those who are put off by the higher cost could simply turn to high sugar sweets and chocolate to get their ‘fix’.

This may be true, however many food manufacturers have opted into a voluntary sugar reformulation plan to reduce calories in their food. Plus, Public Health England has laid out a programme to reduce sugar by 20% across the food industry by 2020.

Of course, the UK isn’t the first country to introduce a sugar tax. Mexico launched theirs on 1st January 2014 and saw a 12% decrease in the consumption of sugary drinks in the first year alone. Although it is still yet unclear what overall affect it may have on obesity.

Hungary also introduced a tax on drinks companies and saw a 40% decrease in sugar content.

We have already seen this effect in the UK. Ahead of the levy’s introduction this month, as many as 50% of companies have reduced the sugar content of their drinks to below the 5g/100ml threshold.

As a result, whether the increase in cost is a successful deterrent or not, we will see a decrease in our sugar consumption. Only time will tell if this is enough to make a difference to our children’s health.