An SSB tax in Mexico reduced consumption, particularly among low socio-economic households
Consumption of SSBs in Australia is highest among men aged 18-24 years
Multiple health and community groups in Australia have called for an SSB tax
In Australia, the price policy that has received the most attention to date with regard to obesity is a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). SSBs are defined as beverages with added caloric sweeteners such as sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup or fruit juice concentrate. This includes soft drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, energy and vitamin water drinks, sweetened mineral waters and cordials. These beverages contribute no valuable nutrients to consumers’ diets but deliver large quantities of sugar – a single can of Coke, for example, contains 40g of sugar (approximately 10 teaspoons).1 SSBs are an easy-to-define category of products that are energy dense and nutrient poor, with close healthier substitutes (such as water).2
A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages
The primary motivation for taxing SSBs is to decrease their consumption, with the aim of improving diets and reducing Australia’s burden of chronic disease as part of a comprehensive approach to addressing obesity. Taxes can also encourage beverage manufacturers to reformulate their products to reduce sugar content; convey the message that the products are a matter of concern for public health; and raise revenue that can be used for health initiatives.3
Free sugar consumption in Australia
Australian Health Survey data shows that more than half of Australians aged two years and older exceeded the World Health Organization’s recommended limits on energy from free sugars in 2011–12.4 Free sugars are sugars added to foods by manufacturers or consumers, and those naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices. The WHO recommends limiting energy from free sugars to less than 10% of daily energy intake (around 12 teaspoons). In 2011–12, Australians aged two years and older consumed an average of 60 grams of free sugar per day (14 teaspoons), with 52% of this free sugar coming from sugary drinks.4 Australians are high per-capita consumers of SSBs, and consumption is highest among young men aged 18–24 years.5
Health impacts of sugar-sweetened beverages
Obesity is a risk factor for chronic disease including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. While overweight and obesity are complex conditions with multiple causes, evidence from randomised controlled trials and prospective studies show that regular consumption of SSBs is associated with long-term weight gain.6 Their association with weight gain appears to be linked to a reduced feeling of fullness when sugars are consumed in a liquid form.7 Consumers do not compensate for the additional energy from consumption of SSBs by reducing consumption of other foods and further, SSBs can induce hunger.8 At a young age, SSB consumption can enhance preferences for sweet food and drinks, and displace more nutritious beverages such as milk.
Impact of taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages
Evidence shows that vulnerable populations such as young people, low-income consumers and those most at risk of obesity, are most responsive to changes in the relative prices of food and beverages.9 It should be noted that the introduction of the 10% Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2000 reduced the tax on soft drinks in Australia from the previous 22% sales tax.10
Systematic reviews of taxes on SSBs have synthesised real-world evidence from jurisdictions that have introduced such taxes, and evidence from simulation studies. These reviews conclude that taxes reduce consumption of SSBs.11 12 13 In turn, reduced consumption of SSBs is significantly associated with weight loss.14 Empirical evidence continues to build about the scale of health benefits that will flow from SSB taxes due to reduced consumption of these beverages. Modelling studies have predicted large reductions in cases of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers.1516
Volumetric tax in Mexico
Empirical evidence from Mexico shows that its volumetric tax of 1 peso per litre on SSBs has reduced purchases. The tax was introduced in 2014 and has led to a price rise of about 11% for soft drinks, and a slightly smaller increase for other sweetened beverages.17 An analysis of SSB purchases over the first two years of the tax found that the effect increased over the first year, and stabilised in the second year to achieve an average 9.7% reduction in purchases of SSBs.18 Reductions in SSB purchases were greatest among households at the lowest socioeconomic levels (a 17% decline in the purchase of taxed beverages compared to a 6% decline among households of a higher socioeconomic position). Researchers said the findings provided early evidence that SSB taxes would have an increasing effect over time in driving down consumption, in line with evidence from tax increases on tobacco and alcohol.
Soft Drink Industry Levy in the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, reformulation was a major objective of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) introduced in April 2018. The SDIL is a two-tiered levy that taxes producers according to a drink’s sugar concentration, with different rates for drinks containing more than 8 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres and those containing 5 to 8 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. Drinks containing less than 5 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres are not taxed.19 On the day before the levy was introduced, the UK Treasury said it had already had an effect, resulting in widespread reformulation equivalent to removing 45 million kilograms of sugar from soft drinks each year.20
Confirming this reformulation effect, an analysis of soft drink availability in UK supermarkets between September 2015 and February 2019 found the percentage of drinks with sugar content of more than 5 grams per 100 millilitres fell from an expected 49% to 15% over the time period studied.21 Many manufacturers chose to reformulate to just below the 5 gram threshold. Some of the levy was passed onto consumers through higher prices but not always on targeted drinks, with low-sugar variants also increasing in price.
Benefits of an Australian tax on sugar-sweetened beverages
A recent Australian study based on dietary intake data estimated the consequences of an additional 20% tax on SSBs in Australia on health and health care expenditure.16 The results show that a 20% tax on SSBs would result in an average 12.6% decline in daily consumption of SSBs, and a decline in obesity of 2.7% in men and 1.2% in women over a lifetime. The study concluded that there would be sustained reductions in the incidence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.
Over a 25-year period, there could be 16,000 fewer cases of type 2 diabetes; 4,400 fewer cases of heart disease; and 1,100 fewer cases of stroke. It is estimated that 1,606 more Australians would be alive in 25 years, with millions of dollars saved in healthcare costs, and that the tax could generate in excess of $400 million (AUD) annually.16 Another economic modelling study has shown that almost 50% of the health care savings generated by a 20% tax on SSBs in Australia would accrue in the most disadvantaged groups.22
Supporters of an Australian tax on SSBs include the Australian Council of Social Services, Australian Dental Association, Australian Medical Association, Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society, Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, Cancer Council Australia, Consumers Health Forum of Australia, Diabetes Australia, Dental Hygienists Association of Australia, Heart Foundation, Kidney Health Australia, Menzies School of Health Research, National Rural Health Alliance, Nutrition Australia, Obesity Australia, Obesity Policy Coalition, Obesity Surgery Society of Australia and New Zealand, Parents’ Voice, Public Health Association of Australia, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Stroke Foundation, and the YMCA.23
A national survey conducted in 2017 showed that 77% of Australians supported a tax on sugary drinks, if the proceeds were used to fund obesity prevention.24