University of Sydney experts comment on the UK's sugar levy

17 March 2016

University of Sydney experts have commented on the UK Government’s decision to put a levy on sugar-containing beverages in a bid to reduce childhood obesity.

University of Sydney experts have commented on the UK Government’s decision to put a levy on sugar-containing beverages in a bid to reduce childhood obesity. 

Beginning in 2018, drinks with more than 8 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres will be taxed at a higher rate than drinks with less than 5 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. 'Pure' fruit juices, milkshakes and lollies will not be subject to the sugar-levy.

The UK Government expects to raise £520 million and will spend the revenue on fitness programs and extended school hours for children so they can take part in more sports.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2011-12, consumption of sweetened beverages in Australia increased with age through childhood, peaking among teenagers aged 14-18 years, with 61 per cent consuming sweetened beverages on the day prior to interview.

Two in three teenage males (67 per cent) aged 14-18 years consumed sweetened beverages, compared with one in two teenage females (55 per cent).

The proportion of people consuming sugar-sweetened beverages was higher for children aged 2-18 years (47 per cent) than adults (31 per cent).

Health implications

Professor Margaret Allman-Farinelli - Charles Perkins Centre

"Young adults are the largest consumers of sugar-sweetened beverages and are gaining weight most rapidly. To avoid an obese future and chronic disease the tax is one strategy to decrease their intake along with another range of measures to address other dietary shortcomings and halt obesity.”

Professor Louise Baur AM - Children's Hospital and Westmead Clinical School

“I fully support a sugar levy in NSW and Australia, such as will occur in the UK. Sugar sweetened beverages should not be a part of the diet of children and young people as it contributes to poor dental health and the risk of excess weight gain.”

Professor Ian Caterson - Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders, Charles Perkins Centre

"This is something we need to consider seriously and act on. With reducing childhood obesity being one of NSW Premier’s priorities, now is a great time to act. Sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) contribute to obesity by providing extra, unnecessary energy. Such a tax will make people think about whether they need a SSB or whether water will do. If they do decide to buy a SSB, then the extra tax can provide much needed funds for health, or as in the UK for school sports activities.”

Professor Chris Peck - Dean of Dentistry

“Dental decay is the most common chronic disease and we are seeing a rise in this disease among children with four out of ten young children and two out of three older children experiencing it. As well, 25 per cent of adults have untreated tooth decay and it seen more in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those on lower incomes. A key factor implicated in dental decay is consumption of sugary food and drinks and it is essential that we consider a tax to curb the rise in this disease.”

Professor Tim Gill - Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders, Charles Perkins Centre

“The introduction of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in Australia has been advocated for many years by a wide collection of health organisations and has even been a recommendation within government reports.  It has the support of every major Australian health NGO and medical and health professional organisation as well as widespread support within the general public. More importantly, we have evidence from other countries such as Mexico that taxing soft drinks reduces consumption.  However, successive Australian Governments have failed to act because they suggest that such taxes are inappropriate, not feasible and raise little revenue. If it is now deemed justifiable, feasible and appropriate in the UK, then it is equally justifiable, feasible and appropriate in Australia.”

Dr Kieron Rooney - Faculty of Health Sciences

"I think any government led strategy that specifically targets reducing the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages is a move in the right direction for improving the health of the community.

"Data published in the British Medical Journal earlier this year reported that in Mexico, a tax on sugar sweetened beverages did result in a reduction in purchases. The introduction of a similar tax in the UK sends a strong message of support to communities that have already put public health measures such as a sugar tax in place while at the same time encouraging the global community that excessive consumption of sugar sweetened beverages is a major concern that deserves attention and action.

"I’d be wary however of thinking that the introduction of a tax on sugar sweetened beverages is all that is needed. The impact of a tax may be highly variable in different communities and so we can’t assume that what has worked in one place will work in another. As identified by the WHO in their report on 'Ending Childhood Obesity' a tax can be part of a comprehensive program that promotes a healthier diet.”

Professor Bruce Neal - The George Institute for Global Health

“The recent recommendations from Australia’s national dietary guidelines and the World Health Organisation are for individuals to limit the intake of foods and drinks with added sugars."

Dr Becky Freeman - Charles Perkins Centre

“Australia has lead the way on tobacco taxes, which have been hugely successful in driving down smoking rates. It is not at all surprising that this same public health tactic could be used to cut down harmful sugar intake. The soft drink industry has learnt a great deal watching how the tobacco industry is losing its battle with public health. The time is right for public health to embrace these same lessons and pushed forward with reforms.”

Business perspective

Associate Professor Teresa Davis - University of Sydney Business School

“The British move is very welcome. Similar proposals put here in Australia have been met with a great deal of pushback from industry in favour of self-regulation, which has clearly failed to curb the amount of sugar being added to processed foods.”

Dr Rohan Miller - University of Sydney Business School

“Britain has taken a massive step forward and this should trigger a public debate over sugar here in Australia. The food industry needs to be more sophisticated in the way that it manages this issue. It’s no longer good enough to simply say that sugar isn’t a problem when many processed foods are no more than an exercise in applied chemistry.”  

Legal perspective 

Dr Belinda Reeve - Sydney Law School

"Australians have high rates of soft drink consumption, and there is consistent evidence that links this consumption to weight gain, obesity, and diabetes. As well as being high in sugar, soft drinks have no nutritional benefit, making it one of the more uncomplicated food products to tax. A soft drink tax may also encourage food companies to reformulate beverage products to reduce their sugar content. While the previous federal Labor government rejected the idea of using the tax system to encourage healthier eating, a tax on soft drinks could form a key part of a reinvigorated approach to the prevention of obesity and chronic disease in Australia.”

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