Tax on Sugary Drinks Could Reduce Obesity Rates

Marcia Frellick

October 31, 2013

Taxing sugar-sweetened soft drinks at 20% would cut the number of obese adults in the United Kingdom by 180,000 (1.3%) and the numbers of overweight adults by 285,000 (0.9%), researchers report in a study published online October 31 in BMJ.

No tax has yet been levied on sugary drinks in the United Kingdom, but momentum to do so is gaining, said Peter Scarborough, DPhil, senior researcher with the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and one of the authors of the study.

"Sugary drink taxes are moving up the political agenda in the UK," he told Medscape Medical News. "There are health-related [nongovernmental organizations] calling for their introduction, including Sustain, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the UK Health Forum. The Liberal Democrats have debated their introduction at their national conference.... Increasingly, national governments are recognizing the health burden imposed by sugary drinks and that this burden could be reduced by measures to discourage consumption."

To calculate the effect of such a tax, Lead author Adam Briggs, MSc, an academic clinical fellow in public health from the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group, Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, and colleagues used surveys of food and drink purchases, the price of drinks, and body weight. They estimated that a 20% tax would be expected to raise £276 million ($US442 million) a year, which is about 8 pence per person per week, and would reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks by nearly 15%.

If the tax rate were lowered to 10%, the authors estimate that the health benefit would drop by roughly half: 89,400 fewer obese people in the United Kingdom.

Britons aged 16 to 29 years, the major consumers of sugar-sweetened drinks, would be affected most, the authors note.

In an accompanying editorial, Jason Block, MD, assistant professor at Obesity Prevention Program, Department of Population Medicine, Harvard Medical School/Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Boston, Massachusetts, said the UK researchers' work shows that a 20% tax on sugary drinks can work to curb obesity. He urges policymakers in other countries to implement the high tax as well.

In the United States, some attempts to do so have already been shot down. Two California cities, Richmond and El Monte, both failed last year to become the first American cities to pass a penny-per-ounce tax on the drinks.

New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg passed a ban on the sale of large sugary drinks, but the proposal was declared illegal by a state judge. The New York Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal.

The fight is very much alive in other locales. For example, in San Francisco this week, two members of the board of supervisors on Tuesday proposed asking voters in November 2014 to impose a tax of 2 cents per ounce on drinks with added sugar and at least 25 calories per ounce.

Mexico is also considering a tax. Its 32.8% obesity rate is the second-largest percentage among major countries (after Egypt), edging out the US rate of 31.8%, according to the 2013 State of Food and Agriculture Report. Mexico's lower house approved the soft drink tax of 1 peso (US$0.08) per liter and sent it on to the Senate for approval.

Reuters reported this afternoon that the Mexican Senate passed it as well, raising the odds that Mexico could lead the way in a global trend to tax sugary beverages.

The average Mexican consumes 43 gallons of soft drinks a year compared with 31 gallons per person in the United States, according to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

The authors and editorialist have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

BMJ. Published online October 31, 2013.

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