Taxing soft drinks only is a simplistic, mono-dimensional approach that ignores the contribution of other nutrients and food categories to obesity or non-communicable diseases (NCDs)
Taxes on soft drinks are discriminatory as they target a single specific food group, regardless of their sugars level, and exclude other key contributors to total sugar and calorie intake, and often without any clear scientific explanation.
- By introducing such specific taxation, governments appear to suggest that some products are undesirable in general without necessarily considering their contribution to sugars and calorie intake relative to other products, and neglect to take into account the fact that the availability and affordability of a wide range of foods and beverages, with different choices and in different portion sizes for different lifestyles, are crucial elements for any free and healthy society. Dietary guidelines suggest that all foods may be consumed in appropriate amounts as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
- Soft drink taxes can mislead the public by indirectly implying they are the main cause of obesity. Reducing soft drink intake only, without addressing other less healthy aspects of the diet, will likely not improve obesity rates or health.
- Such taxes are also particularly discriminatory in that sweetened beverages are frequently not, and by far, the main contributor to free sugars intake.Although there is high variability across countries and population groups, the EFSA Opinion on Dietary Sugars concluded that the food group contributing the most to the intake of added and free sugars in European countries is ‘sugars and confectionery’ (i.e. table sugar, honey, syrups, confectionery and water-based sweet desserts) followed by sugar-sweetened soft drinks and ‘fine bakery wares’ (i.e. biscuits, cakes, pastries).
A few examples:
- In Germany, in 2006-2016, sugar and sweets accounted for 34.2% of free sugars intake compared to 11.2% for sugar-sweetened beverages among the 3-18 years old.
- In Slovenia, in 2017-2018, bread and bakery accounted for 21.2% of free sugars intake compared to 13.4% for soft drinks among the 10-17 years old. For the adult population (18-64 years old), the proportion is 20% for bread and bakery against 15.5% for soft drinks.
- Similar trends can be observed in almost all EU Member States, as indicated in the EFSA Opinion on Dietary Sugars.
Any taxation scheme aimed at reducing sugar consumption should not discriminate against one particular product category but encourage reformulation in all product categories contributing to consumers’ sugar intake. Studies which have looked at the total diet in both adults and children have reported many food groups are associated with weight gain. This is why according to the European Commission’s report “Mapping of Fiscal Measures and Pricing Policies Applied to Food, Non-alcoholic and Alcoholic Beverages”, other types of foods and beverages should be considered in the scope of fiscal policies in order to maximise the impact on public health:
‘’The taxes are small in absolute terms and apply to products that represent only a small share of households’ overall food and beverage expenditures. Therefore, the impact of SSB (sugar-sweetened beverages) taxes alone on dietary intake and health is likely to be small at best, despite consistent evidence of their effectiveness in reducing purchases of the taxed products in the available evidence base.’’ (page 11)
When looking at data across countries, there does not also appear to be a correlation between frequent soft drink consumption and obesity rates in children/adolescents. Countries with some of the highest rates of overweight and obesity have the lowest proportion of frequent sugary soft drink consumers.1 This shows that the causes of obesity are not only multifactorial, but the factors likely vary by country.
Data from the WHO shows declines in frequent soft drinks consumption in young Europeans (11,13,15 years old): more than 40% on average.2 Nevertheless, overweight and obesity has increased in up to a third of countries/regions.
1 COSI/WHO Europe Round 5 (2018-2020).
2 WHO Europe HBSC Surveys, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018.