Would a ‘Sugar Tax’ on Snacks and Sodas Reduce Obesity?

Experts note that manufacturers are allowed to “reformulate” their products to avoid the taxes.

Would a ‘Sugar Tax’ on Snacks and Sodas Reduce Obesity?
Would a ‘Sugar Tax’ on Snacks and Sodas Reduce Obesity?

As more countries and cities consider taxes on sugary beverages, some experts are beginning to look beyond drinks. In the United Kingdom, people buy 78 liters of soda per person each year on average, placing it 19th in the world, according to a 2014 study. That’s about half the 154 liters the average person in the United States buys.


But in terms of overall sugar consumption, the U.K. comes in seventh, a 2015 study found. The United States is first. So in a country such as England, perhaps a tax that goes beyond just soda is a better tactic for reducing sugar consumption.

In the study, researchers conclude that a 20 percent price increase on high-sugar snacks could lead to a 2 percent decrease in obesity in a year.

Among the taxed snacks they studied were candies (including chocolate, the researchers note), biscuits (aka cookies), and cakes.The effect of the price change on obesity was forecast to be the greatest on low-income households with weight issues and smallest in high-income households without those issues.

Countries with soda taxes have already seen some improvements in reducing obesity. And countries with taxes on high-sugar snacks such as Mexico and Hungary have also seen benefits.

Would a tax really work?

That sounds a bit optimistic, said Barry Poplin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who is studying the effects of the taxes in Mexico.

“In 5 or 10 years to get to that level would be more realistic.” 

– Barry Poplin

Mexico ranks fourth in the world with 136 liters of soda purchased by each person each year on average. But, Poplin noted, research has forecast a 2 percent reduction in obesity from the 10 percent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages that went into effect in 2014 — in 10 years.


That a tax on high-sugar snacks in the U.K. would have the same effect within a year seems “overconfident” to Poplin. But that shouldn’t take away from the fact that these policies would likely have positive health effects over time.

“We just need to manage expectations, These are top scholars, but they’re setting up expectations with this that are going to be very hard to meet.”

– Barry Poplin

Changing eating habits

What we can say for sure so far is that high-sugar taxes are changing what snacks people buy in Mexico and Hungary and what manufacturers put into snacks.

Mexico’s tax on “nonessential energy-dense foods” caused people to buy 7 percent less junk food in the second year after the tax went into effect. Households that had previously purchased the most junk food saw the biggest declines.

In Hungary, a study found many people were either eating less of the taxed product or buying healthier products instead.

In both countries, manufacturers can “reformulate” their products to get below the high-sugar thresholds and avoid taxes. As taxes have raised prices for sugary products in some countries, soda prices are falling elsewhere.


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