Behind the headlines

A tax on sugary drinks?

Child drinking from a glass

We give the BHF perspective on news stories about calls from the British Medical Association for a tax on sugary drinks.

The BHF’s view:

A call from doctors for a tax on sugary drinks has hit the headlines.

The British Medical Association wants the government to impose a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks in order to reduce the amount of the drinks that we consume. The tax proposed by the BMA would apply to soft drinks with added sugar, including fizzy drinks, squashes, sports drinks and energy drinks (but not milkshakes).  

The report says the tax is justified by the fact that, as it says: “that the strongest evidence of effectiveness of taxation approaches is for sugar-sweetened beverages; that these products are typically high in calories and low in essential vitamins and minerals (often referred to as ‘empty calories’); that the intake of added sugars by many children and adults in the UK far exceeds recommended levels; and that a high intake of added sugars is a risk factor for a range of health conditions.”

The report, called Food for Thought: Promoting Healthy Diets among Children and Young People, has received widespread media coverage, including The Times, Daily Mail, Guardian, Telegraph, BBC News and others. 

Most of the coverage has focused on the proposed sugar tax, but the report sets out a wide range of measures, including free fruit and vegetables for all primary school children in the UK (the existing scheme doesn't include all schools in England and Scotland, while Wales and Northern Ireland aren't covered at all), national standards for hospital food, and restrictions on marketing unhealthy foods to children and young people, with a view to a long term ban. 

The report also says that “taxing a wide range of products is an important long term goal”, in which a sugary drinks tax would be the “first step”. The report also suggests that fruit and vegetables could be subsidised to reduce diet-related diseases, because “the majority of the UK population do not consume these at recommended levels, and they are one of the food groups most affected by recent food price rise”. The report suggests that the sugary drinks tax could help to pay for this subsidy.

Sugary drink taxes already exist in Mexico and Berkeley in California. But the UK Government has said it is not considering a sugar tax. 

Tracy Parker, BHF Heart Health Dietitian, said: “We know that in the UK our intakes of sugar have exceeded dietary recommendations for some time. Sugar-sweetened beverages in our diet are one of the main sources, especially for children.

Cutting down on sugary drinks and replacing them with sugar-free options is a simple swap that we can make.

Tracy Parker
BHF Heart Health Dietitian

“Added sugar can mean excess energy, which can lead to weight gain and obesity, a risk factor for both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Cutting down on sugary drinks and replacing them with sugar-free options is a simple swap that we can make to reduce our sugar intake.

“However, a sugar tax alone will not solve the problem of obesity. It needs to be combined with other measures -  such as a reduction in the amount of sugar added to the foods and drinks we buy and the restriction in the marketing of unhealthy food and drink products to children and young people both online and on TV.”

The government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) is due to publish its Carbohydrates and Health report this week. Its draft report, which has been the subject of a public consultation, said that average intakes of added sugar are higher than the recommended levels for all age groups. The report found that soft drinks are the biggest source of added sugar in the diet for 11-18 year olds. In adults, alcoholic drinks, confectionery, table sugar, preserves and cereal products were also significant sources, along with sugary soft drinks.

The current guideline is that added sugars shouldn’t make up more than 10 per cent of the energy (calorie intake) you get from food and drink each day. This is about 70g (17.5 teaspoons) for men and 50g (12.5 teaspoons) for women.

Public Health England is also conducting its own review of how to tackle the issue and advise government once the SACN recommendations have been finalised. Its report is due to be published this summer and will look at the issue of a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks alongside other policy interventions.

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