Soda tax of 20 percent may cut United Kingdom obesity rate by 180,000

By Simeon Bennett

A 20 percent tax on sugary drinks in the United Kingdom would cut the nation’s obesity rate by 1.3 percent, with the greatest benefit for people under 30, a study found.

The tax, proposed by the U.K. Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, would result in about 180,000 fewer adults with a body mass index of 30 or more, researchers from the universities of Oxford and Reading wrote in the journal BMJ. Among people ages 16 to 30, who are the greatest consumers of sugary drinks, the tax would reduce obesity by 7.6 percent, the study showed.

About 26 percent of adults in the United Kingdom are obese, the second highest rate in Europe behind Hungary, which has adopted taxes on salt and sugar. While other European nations and some U.S. states tax soft drinks, most levies are less than 10 percent.

Today’s findings show that while a tax wouldn’t be a panacea, it could help reduce the diabetes, heart disease, and tooth decay linked with the drinks, the authors wrote.

“The more pressing question is whether policy makers can implement a tax this high,” Jason Block, an assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School’s obesity prevention program in Boston, wrote in comments accompanying the study. “We now need policy makers to act and provide opportunities for real-world evidence.”

Diet surveys

The study used data from household spending and diet surveys, together with systems for estimating the effect of tax increases on drink purchases, and changes in energy intake on body mass index (BMI). BMI is a measure of body fat, calculated by using a person’s weight and height.

Based on their findings, the researchers predicted that the tax would reduce the number of overweight people, defined as those with a BMI of 25 or more, by 285,000, or 0.9 percent.

It would also raise 276 million pounds ($443 million) a year in revenue and reduce consumption of concentrated sugar-sweetened drinks by 15 percent, according to the study.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which represents about 220,000 British doctors, in February, proposed testing the tax for a year as one of 10 recommendations for curbing obesity.

The U.K. government’s health department said companies including Tesco Plc (TSCO) and Coca-Cola Co. have agreed to reduce sugar in their drinks under a voluntary plan aimed at improving public health.

Reducing sugar

“The voluntary action we have put in place will help people to make healthier choices but we keep all international evidence under review,” the department said in an e-mailed statement.

Taxing soft drinks won’t curb obesity, partly because its causes are complex, Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, said in an e-mailed statement.

“Trying to blame one set of products is misguided, particularly when they comprise a mere 2 percent of calories in the average diet,” he said.

The sale of sugar-sweetened drinks in schools is banned in the United Kingdom, as is advertising them on children’s television.

Soft-drink taxes in France and Ireland have been associated with reductions in consumption, though their health impact hasn’t yet been studied, the authors wrote.

A sugar tax in Denmark was abandoned in November after it was criticized for raising prices and driving consumers to shop in neighboring countries that don’t have the tax.

American consumers

In the United States, 34 states and the District of Columbia have food taxes that affect sugar-sweetened drinks, and studies there have shown that a 20 percent tax would bring about significantly higher reductions in energy intake than today’s research predicts. Still, Americans consume more than three times more energy per person per day from sugar-sweetened drinks than Britons, the authors wrote.

In September 2012, New York City’s Board of Health approved Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to restrict sales of sugary soft drinks to no more than 16 ounces (454 grams) a cup. In March, New York Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling barred the proposal from becoming law, saying it had too many loopholes and violated the jurisdiction of the City Council.

Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has appealed the decision.

Mexico’s Senate yesterday backed a 1 peso (8 cents) per-liter tax on soft drinks and an 8 percent tax on junk food. The nation has the highest obesity rate of any major country after Egypt, and is the world’s top consumer of soft drinks at 163 liters per capita a year, 40 percent more than the United States, according to the World Health Organization.

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