There is no evidence that taxation of soft drinks reduces obesity or non-communicable diseases (NCDs)
The claimed health goal of a tax on soft drinks is to reduce obesity and associated non-communicable diseases such as diabetes. However, no studies have provided clear consistent evidence on the effectiveness of those taxes to reduce obesity or positively impact non-communicable diseases.
Reformulation and portion size control are more cost-effective interventions than taxation in reducing calories and sugar in the diet.
Research shows that while taxes aimed at reducing purchases of soft drinks may have a short-term impact on sales, purchasing behaviour returns to near pre-tax levels over an extended time (Euromonitor International, Passport: “Sin Tax In Food And Beverages – Strategies, Outcomes and Learnings”, December 2016).
It is considered that even high levels of soda tax may not impact population weight as weight loss requires reducing total calorie intake and burning more calories by being active.
Markets with soft drinks taxes such as Mexico, Finland, Chile, the United Kingdom, France and Ireland are still facing growing obesity problems and have not provided evidence of public health benefits.
Reducing calorie and sugar intake in the diet requires a holistic approach with public and private stakeholders working together. The soft drinks sector, for example, delivered a 17.7% added sugars reduction since 2015, outperforming its 10% reduction target and the share of low- and no-calorie soft drinks continues to increase steadily. Furthermore, we can witness impressive reformulation efforts leading to sugar and calorie reductions in many countries where no tax has been implemented (see here an overview of current national sugar reduction commitments in the soft drinks sector).
A few examples:
- A recent study demonstrated that taxation is not necessary to impact sugary soft drinks consumption. On the contrary, larger, or at least similar, declines in the proportion (%) of adolescents drinking sugary soft drinks daily have been reported in countries which have not introduced a soft drink tax, compared to similar countries with soft drinks taxes. This study compared data from 6 European countries which introduced a soft drinks tax between 2001-2002 and 2017-2018 with data from neighbouring comparison countries which had not introduced a tax.
Daily sugary soft drink consumption was found to have:
– declined in Poland (no tax), but not in Hungary (with tax);
– declined in Italy (no tax), but not in France (with tax);
– experienced a larger decline in the Netherlands (no tax) compared to Belgium (with tax);
– experienced a larger decline in Spain (no tax) compared to Portugal (with tax);
– experienced a similar decline in Sweden (no tax) compared to Finland (with tax).
Latvia was the only country where the proportion of adolescents drinking sugary soft drinks daily declined post-tax compared to its neighbour – Lithuania (no tax).
- Mexico introduced a sugar tax in 2014 to curb their intake of soft drinks which was one of the highest in the world, and to reduce their very high obesity rate, but their obesity rates continue to rise (Euromonitor – Obese population in Mexico: 26.8% in 2014, 30.5% in 2021).
- There is also little evidence that obesity rates are improving in the UK since it introduced a sugar tax in 2018. Despite a study claiming that the introduction of the 2018 UK soft drinks levy had a temporal association with a reduction in obesity among 10-11-year-old girls in England, this study only focused on one segment of the British population, cannot provide evidence for a casual link, and there was no association between the levy and changes in obesity in boys or younger children. Overall obesity rates in the UK are still the highest in Europe. In England, rates have increased faster than in most OECD countries. Two out of 3 men are overweight and 1 in 4 people are obese in the UK and OECD projections indicate that overweight rates will increase by a further 10% within ten years.
- In Ireland, while the tax on soft drinks has accelerated the reformulation of products, there is no clear evidence that rates of obesity and overweight have fallen. Actually, in teenagers (13-18 years old), intake of sugar-sweetened soft drinks has fallen by 60% (from 213 g/d in 2005/6 to 84 g/d in 2019/20). Over the same time period, the proportion of teenagers who are overweight (including obesity) has increased from 18 to 24%.
- An October 2020 report from the International Monetary Fund and the OECD on taxation in Chile analysed, among others, the effects of the tax on soft drink intake. The report highlights how this type of tax is generally adopted for health objectives, but their desired impact on obesity rates remains ambiguous.
Global institutions and several countries have rejected the taxation of soft drinks as an effective approach to improving health outcomes
The United Nations (UN) has held two high-level meetings1 to establish a roadmap for the best policy recommendations on health-related issues for Member States, and in both instances the UN rejected taxation of soft drinks as an effective health policy recommendation.
Taxation of soft drinks was also rejected as an effective policy recommendation in February 2021 by the UN Committee on World Food Security in their “Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems for Nutrition”.
The message at global level is clear: countries should better focus on non-monetary policy interventions which are more likely to lead to positive health outcomes.
This message is also supported at country level: The Norwegian government for example abolished its excise tax on non-alcoholic beverages in its 2021 budget, following Iceland and Denmark in abolishing such taxes.
1 2018 UN High-Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) and the 2019 UN High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage (UHC).