Sugar tax is a step in the right driection

Ireland’s sugar tax, which comes into force today, is not a magic bullet in the fights against obesity, but a step in the right direction, writes Ivan J Perry, Professor of Public Health, at UCC
Sugar tax is a step in the right driection
The sugar tax will add 30 cent per litre to the price of popular sweetened drinks,with more than 8g of sugar per 100ml.

TODAY, May 1, Ireland, joins a group of 28 nations who have levied a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. The tax will see 30 cent per litre added to the price of popular sweetened drinks with over 8g of sugar per 100ml. It will see the price of some popular drinks such as Coke, Pepsi and 7UP rise by as much as 10 cent per can and by 60 cent per two-litre bottle.

The measure is designed to help tackle overweight and obesity by incentivising consumers to opt for healthier drinks while also encouraging the drinks industry to reduce the added sugar content of drinks.

Two obvious questions arise in relation to this tax. Is it necessary and will it work?

Based on our own research in the School of Public Health, UCC and on the findings from international research, we believe the case for a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in Ireland is clear and compelling.

Sugar is one of the primary causes of tooth decay in childhood and it is implicated as a major factor in the epidemic of overweight and obesity that has emerged in Ireland and worldwide since the early 1990’s. Just under two-thirds of adults (61%) and one in four children (25%) in Ireland are now either overweight or obese. It is well known that overweight and obesity cause adult onset diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

What is less well known is that excess body weight is Ireland’s biggest cause of cancer after smoking. It should also be noted that the full impact and costs both to individuals and society of excess weight that starts in early childhood and persists over decades into adult life has not yet been quantified.

Thus, it is clear that the Government needs to consider all measures, including sugar taxes, with the potential to stall and ultimately reverse the current epidemic of overweight and obesity.

Professor Ivan Perry, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, UCC. Picture: Tomas Tyner.
Professor Ivan Perry, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, UCC. Picture: Tomas Tyner.

Children are particularly vulnerable to high intakes of sugar and may have most to gain from the sugar tax. Here in Cork, in a school-based study (The Cork Children’s Lifestyle Study) involving more than 1,000 school children, aged eight to 10 years — recruited from 28 schools — we have shown that children consuming sugar sweetened drinks were significantly more likely to be overweight or obese compared to non-consumers.

Consumption of just one additional 330ml can per day was associated with a 1kg increase of body weight. In this study, led by Dr Janas Harrington in the School of Public Health, we found that 82% of children were regular consumers of sugar sweetened drinks. These findings are in line with the large number of international studies and are part of the body of evidence that have led to a statement by Public Health England, that the “average five-year-old today is consuming their body weight in sugar, each year” — or more than 6,000 teaspoons of sugar a year. It should also be noted that we now also have evidence from large scientifically robust studies (randomised control trials) that reducing intakes of sugar sweetened drinks decreases risk of weight gain and obesity in children and young people. Sugar drinks are not the only source for sugar but it has been shown in these and other studies that they are among the most important sources for children.

Research from countries that have already introduced a sugar drinks tax provides some indication of the likely effects of such a tax in Ireland. In Mexico, it has been shown that a 10% tax on sugar sweetened beverages (equivalent to 1 peso (4p) per litre of sugary drink) was associated with a decline in purchases averaging 7.6% over two years with the biggest effect observed in the poorest households.

The effects of the Irish sugar tax on consumption levels among children and adults and the industry response in terms of reformulation, portion size and pricing will be studied intensively over the next five years.

Based on current evidence, it is estimated that an effective 20% increase in sugar-drinks prices would lead to an approximately 18% reduction in intakes with an estimated maximum increase in household expenditure of approximately 82 cent per week. It is clear that the sugar tax, regardless of its impact, will not on its own solve the crisis of overweight and obesity in children and adults in Ireland. However it does represent a significant step forward, especially if combined with other measures such as clear “traffic light” labelling of food products, a ban on advertising of sugar sweetened drinks and a ban on the sale of sugar sweetened drinks in schools. In addition to its effects on consumption of sugar, this new tax is of considerable symbolic importance.

In recent decades, Governments have had to stand up to the tobacco and alcohol industries in the public interest and it is clear now that the food industry is in the frame, especially the purveyors of ultra-processed foods high in sugar, fat and salt.

Ivan J Perry, MD, PhD, Professor of Public Health, School of Public Health, University College Cork.

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