The Soft Drinks Industry Levy is coming into force in the UK, and data from other countries suggest it may not be the best solution.

The UK is the most obese country in Western Europe, and the sixth most obese country in the world. Around 26.9% of the British population has a body mass index of 30 and above, according to an OECD report, and the cost of treating ill health caused by obesity and related issues is rising fast. The costs have increased by 92% since the 1990s, which illustrates the scale of the public health challenge. The World Obesity Forum predicts that unless effective action is taken, the cost of treating ill health caused by obesity in the UK will rise from $19bn to $31bn per year in 2025.

The UK government, long criticised for taking no action to tackle this issue, decided to introduce a Soft Drinks Industry Levy, in the hope that the increased cost will stop people from buying soft drinks as often, and therefore they will be consuming less sugar. The manufacturers of soft drinks will be taxed on the volume they produce or import. The new tax could increase the cost of a two-litre bottle of Coca-Cola (10.6g per 100ml) by as much as 48p if the plans go ahead as announced and the drinks giant does not alter its recipe. The money raised as part of the levy is supposed to go to the Department for Education to be used to fund sports in primary schools.

Lessons from other sugar tax schemes

Several countries around the world have already introduced similar measures, attempting to curb the appetite for sugar. This includes France, Mexico, Hungary and Norway, among others. While initially they have seen some success in reducing the consumption of fizzy drinks, the data from the NCDRisC project shows that the average BMI and obesity prevalence increased or remained static in these countries in the long term.

Despite the strong opposition from soft drink lobby groups, the tax comes into force in April 2018. While the drinks industry claims there is no evidence that sugar tax leads to lower consumption and warns it may cause loss of a significant number of jobs hitting the poor hardest, health campaigners demand it should be extended to cover all chocolate, sweets and other confectionery containing the highest levels of sugar.

Time will show if the new tax is going to bring about the desired effect in the UK. In some ways it is already working, before it has even begun. The April 2018 UK tax deadline is already forcing manufacturers to reformulate drinks to come in below the sugar tax threshold and introducing new drinks with less sugar content.

However, as the taste of sugar is naturally addictive, those habits are hard to break. Consumers may simply adjust to paying more for it, find cheaper substitutes to the taxed product to “satisfy their sweet tooth” or just choose cheaper brands of the same product, meaning their intake of calories remains the same as before the tax.