Sugar sweetened drinks, taxation and public health - blog article

In this blog, Dr Noelle Cotter and Dr Helen McAvoy explore the evidence on taxation of sugar sweetened drinks policy in the context of the obesity epidemic on the island of Ireland.

A recent editorial in the Irish Times (August 9th) on the taxation of sugar sweetened drinks (SSDs) refers to the struggle to protect the health of consumers and the strengthening of political resolve to challenge powerful commercial interests.

The Institute of Public Health in Ireland (IPH) published a Health Impact Assessment of such a tax in 2012 and monitors evolving evidence on the impact of taxation. Appropriate engagement with the evidence supporting this measure has been somewhat neglected in recent media and public debate as vested commercial interests seek to derail government commitments. 

In 2014, Mexico introduced a 10% tax on SSDs. This was associated with an average 6% reduction in SSDs purchases compared with the previous year and significant increases in purchases of non-taxed beverages and plain mineral water (WHO, 2015).Similar outcomes are reported in the context of the 2011 tax in Hungary (WHO Europe, 2016). There is also strong evidence that price differences influence consumer behaviour in Ireland – when Ireland’s ‘table waters’ tax was reduced by 10% during the 1980s, this was associated with an 11% increase in litres consumed (Bahl et al, 2003).

The economic impacts on industry have been overstated. It is anticipated (as has been observed in other countries) that a tax would lead to a dip in sales of these products but would benefit alternative non-sugared beverages in the product range (WHO, 2015). Meanwhile there has been little discussion on the cost of overweight and obesity. This study undertaken for Safefood estimated the 2009 direct and indirect costs of overweight and obesity in the Republic of Ireland at €1.13 billion and for Northern Ireland, the estimated cost was €510 million. The Healthy Ireland Survey reports that 37% of Republic of Ireland adults are overweight and a further 23% are obese. This is similar to the figures available in Northern Ireland; Health Survey Northern Ireland (2014/15) reports that a total of 60% of adults were either overweight (35%) or obese (25%).

A tax on sugar sweetened drinks will not, on its own, solve the epidemic of overweight and obesity.However, the evidence is clear, should one engage with it, that taxation can be one important component of a suite of policy measures. The Department of Health is expected to publish a new obesity policy this year and both the Irish and UK governments have made firm commitment to the progression of the tax. In Northern Ireland, commitments have been made for a study on a tax on SSDs within the Health (Miscellaneous) Provisions Bill. Cooperation on cross-border trade issues is assured as both governments seek to prioritise the health of their citizens over vested commercial interests and deploy evidence-based policy measures to address the obesity crisis across the island of Ireland.