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Sugar levels in UK soft drinks lowered following government levy


Soft drinks manufacturers in the UK have lowered sugar levels in their drinks following the introduction of the Government’s sugar levy, NIHR-funded researchers have found.

The Soft Drinks Industry Levy, introduced in April 2018 to help combat childhood obesity and related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, applies to drinks containing more than 5g of sugar per 100ml, but not to fruit juice, milk-based drinks, alcoholic drinks, or drinks from companies with sales of less than 1million litres per year.

The new study found the changes in drink formulation brought about by the tax have been much greater than achieved by voluntary industry initiatives, with just 15% of drinks still liable for the levy by February 2019. Prior to the announcement of the levy, 52% of eligible drinks were liable for the tax.

The research, led by teams at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Exeter, Warwick and Bath Universities, is published in PLoS Medicine.

Researchers say their analysis shows that such fiscal interventions can be a useful and effective tool for improving the population’s diet.

Dr Peter Scarborough, associate professor at the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, said: “It is vital that public health interventions are evaluated using robust methods so that we can discover what is effective at preventing ill health. The levy is an important policy as it both reduces the sugar level of many drinks and increases the prices of high sugar drinks, helping the public to make healthier choices. These population approaches are important not only for preventing disease but also for reducing health inequalities.”

Researchers assessed a dataset of soft drinks available in UK supermarkets from September 2015-February 2019. Prior to the announcement of the SDIL, there was already a slight downward trend in the sugar content of drinks. They compared the sugar content of drinks to that background trend, as a measure of how much the SDIL had affected drinks formulation.

After the SDIL announcement, the percentage of drinks liable for the levy began to reduce faster than the background trend. If the trend had continued, by February 2019, 49% of drinks would still have been eligible for the tax, rather than the 15% actually seen, they found. The biggest changes in drink formulation happened just before the implementation of the levy. In the 100 days either side of the levy's implementation in April 2018, 11% of the eligible drinks changed sugar content so that they were not liable.

Supermarkets had been reducing the sugar content of their own brand drinks before the announcement so the changes were less dramatic than for branded drinks when assessed separately.

Price analysis showed that, for branded drinks, around half of the levy was passed onto consumers in higher prices of drinks in the higher levy category after the introduction of the SDIL, while lower levy drinks reduced in price.

Professor Martin White of the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge and study Chief Investigator, said: “The findings suggest that the levy has been effective in prompting industry reformulation to reduce sugar content of many soft drinks. However, the marketing strategies of soft drinks manufacturers compared to supermarkets vary considerably, with differences in sugar content, sizes and prices of drinks as a result of the levy.

“Further research is looking at how these changes affect purchases and consumption of soft drinks and potential health impacts among the public, as well as impacts on businesses and the economy. These will be reported over the next year as they become available.”

The NIHR’s Public Health Research (PHR) Programme funded the research, which is part of a wider £1.5m evaluating a wide range of impacts of the tax and tracking how these change over time. More information on the study is available on the NIHR Funding Awards website.