I work with evidence, and I haven’t seen any evidence that sugar taxes are the answer to the obesity problem. It might sound plausible in theory – you hoist up the price and people buy less – but I haven’t seen any conclusive data that this actually reduces obesity or type 2 diabetes.
What we do know is that when you tax something, people may buy less initially – but then they buy or eat something else instead. We call this the substitution effect. In Mexico they instituted a similar tax and sales dropped initially, but purchases of other drinks that weren’t affected rose, and the overall effect was the opposite of what was intended: the figures we’ve seen from 2015 show that after that initial dip, sales of sugary drinks have gone back up, and are now slightly higher than the pre-tax levels.
What I find really interesting is that we’re eating less sugar now than we were in the 1970s, when obesity rates were extremely low. If sugar was the cause of obesity, you’d expect obesity rates to drop when sugary drinks consumption dropped. But in fact we’ve seen a really dramatic decrease in sugary drink intake in the last 10 years – almost 45 per cent – without a corresponding reduction in obesity. So as a nation, we’re obviously still eating excessive calories, but perhaps the calories we’re not getting from soft drinks are being replaced by calories from other foods.
That’s perhaps the most pertinent point for me in this debate, that the drop in sugar intake is not mirrored by a drop in obesity rates. When you begin to look for solutions, there are many more complex factors that I think we need to address, including social deprivation, environmental poverty and social conditioning. We also need more effective education, with more funding and more effective grass-roots campaigns and weight management programmes in the community and workplace. These are the things that can really make a difference at an individual level, as well as policy changes at the top. And ultimately it’s about resetting the norm in terms of what people think of as their drink of choice – water should be seen as the normal, easy option.
If you look at the food consumption data from the last 20 years, –people are consuming less fibre, fewer vegetables, wholegrains, and pulses. So it’s fair to say that, as a nation, our eating habits have certainly changed in the last two or three decades. Crucially, there has been a concurrent drop in overall physical activity levels. That doesn’t mean that people are less willing to join gyms, but it does mean that we’re generally less active in our day-to-day lives – we get less of the low-intensity exercise that comes from manual jobs, walking to work and school, that sort of thing. We’re relying more on cars.
Obesity is a very complex problem that results from numerous, deep-rooted problems that relate to socio-economic factors, the environment, our lifestyle and our culture. It’s not simply about the price of soft drinks or any individual category. Applying a soft drinks tax is not an effective way to solve it.
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Anita Bean is a nutritionist, a sports nutrition practitioner, a health journalist and the author of 27 books on nutrition, health and exercise. Anita received no payment for this article and is an independent freelance Registered Nutritionist with no affiliation to Can the Tax.
She sees the Sugar Tax as a blunt instrument, not suited to the complex societal problem of obesity.