In the weeks before his election Boris Johnson called for a review and potential roll back of ‘sin taxes’ which bemused experts, including the public health community. He stated that “once we leave the EU on 31 October, we will have a historic opportunity to change the way politics is done in this country. A good way to start would be basing tax policy on clear evidence“. More recently, for example, the cabinet chose to stall the recent Public Health England (PHE) report showing precisely how effective the Soft Drinks Industry Levy has been.
The report published at the end of last week provides ‘clear evidence’ that the levy is working. Since its introduction, there has been a 25% reduction in added sugar in sugar-sweetened drinks (equivalent to around 2tsp reduction given an average 330ml drink can), which represents the removal of more than 30,000 tonnes of sugar from soft drinks, and 37.5 billion fewer kilocalories in sugary drinks each year. This is significant as the report also showed that the voluntary sugar reduction scheme for other products has showed a significantly lower rate of reduction. So while sugar has been reduced in sugary beverages thanks to the levy, more could be done to further reduce sugar across the food environment. Furthermore, arguments that the levy is regressive have not come to fruition, with sugar from soft drink purchases decreasing in each social group, plus a shift towards consuming more drinks with zero or lower sugar. The long-term impact of these levels on sugar reduction on the health of the population will take longer to come to light, but our modelling indicated that the levy could result in the avoidance of 3.7million cases of obesity over the next decade. That’s equivalent to the combined populations of Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Bristol and Leicester.
Therefore, rather than repealing the levy (or ones like it), the rate should be increased to ensure further gains are made to reduce consumption and support the preventive effort to reduce obesity.