Features International Sugar Journal

Sugar, obesity, taxes and choice

Sugar continues to be a low hanging fruit attacked by food and health campaigners as the key driver for “obesity, diabetes type II, metabolic syndrome or rising levels of uric acid and cardiovascular disease”1. Mass media, particularly in the west are doing their bit to fan the flames through their coverage which is all too often unbalanced and gives way to perception rather than addressing and challenging facts on hand about sugar consumption, nutritional science and attendant health issues. Indeed, the goal post has changed, from fat – saturated fat, in particular, being the health-wrecking element in our diets to sugar. “As recently as 2007, a review of the obesity literature concluded that the ‘strongest evidence for an increased risk of obesity relates to diets that are high in dietary fat or low in fibre”.2

Clamour for taxing sugar to reduce consumption is maintained with zeal by campaigners. In the UK, the government was recently chided for sitting on the Public Health England (PHE) report which argues for the introduction of sugar tax to foster healthier lifestyle choices. Campaigners are calling for a tax of 7p (US$0.11 cents) to the price of 330 ml can of fizzy drink. One of the authors of the PHE report, Professor Sheila Hollins notes that “We know from experiences in other countries that taxation on unhealthy food and drinks can improve health outcomes, and the strongest evidence of effectiveness is for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.”


But this is not entirely the case. Mexico introduced an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) of 1 peso (US$0.06 cents) per litre in January 2014. According to sales data collected by Nielsen (see table) there was no significant reduction in consumption “in the twelve months to May 2013 (before the tax) and the twelve months to May 2015 (the first full year of data since the tax was introduced). Between these years, consumption of SSBs fell by 182 litres. 182 litres in a country that consumes over 11 billion litres of carbonated soft drinks is a flat result.”3 Commenting on this failure, the strong advocate of sugar tax Professor Barry Popkin suggested to the reporter at the Washington Post that the tax was not punitive enough. Denmark dropped the fat tax introduced in 2011 after variety of unforeseen issues arising. Some 90% of Danes were eating the same amount of fatty foods. Shoppers switched to discount stores or often went to neighbouring countries “to import cheaper soda from border shops; affecting both state taxes and local retail shops”.1

In the west there has been a significant decline in per capita sugar consumption since the 1960s, while the rates of obesity and diabetes rose sharply after 1970s. Most scientists concede that obesity leads to diabetes rather than the other way round. The British Dietetic Association has acknowledged that there is little evidence to say that sugar itself causes type 2 diabetes. Research from Sugar Nutrition UK found that “any link to body weight was due to overconsumption of calories and was not specific to sugars”.

Writing in the British newspaper Daily Telegraph, Prof Richard Tiffin, director of the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading points out, that “The real battleground is in the mind of the consumer. At its most troublesome level, the obesity epidemic is centred on a minority of people who struggle to make healthy lifestyle choices. Convincing these people to change their behaviour requires subtle and targeted action – not the blunt instrument of blanket price increases.”

As Lyons and Snowdon state in their seminal thoughtpiece2 “Health campaigners may believe that people should be maximising their longevity rather than optimising their taste buds, but in a free society that is not their decision to make.”


1 Credit Suisse Research (September 2013) Sugar consumption at crossroads (23pp)

2 Rob Lyons and Christopher Snowdon (July 2015) Sweet truth: Is there a market failure in sugar? (IEA Discussion Paper No.62)

3 Joshua Riddiford (2015) Fizzed out: Why a sugar tax won’t curb obesity (New Zealand Taxpayers Union, pp 14, 978-0-473-33060-6 (PDF format))