Controversial 'sugar tax' report is finally published

Friday October 23 2015

"A sugar tax of up to 20 per cent is need[ed] on fizzy drinks and fattening snacks," the Daily Mail reports. 

It is one of eight recommendations from Public Health England designed to tackle the UK's love affair with the sweet stuff that is linked to obesity and diabetes.

Public Health England (PHE), the agency in charge of the nation's health, has outlined evidence that we're eating far too much sugar as a country and it is making us fat and ill. PHE's report suggests what it feels are the most effective ways to reduce consumption.

PHE says its eight suggestions will help the nation achieve a new lower recommended daily intake of sugar (5% of total energy, recently down from 10%), save lives from weight-related diseases, cut tooth decay, and save the NHS £576 million a year.

This fits with a previous report from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) that recommended no more than 5% of our calorie intake should come from "free sugars".

Among the eight main suggestions is a tax on sugar of around 10-15%, a reduction in price promotions at supermarkets (such as buy one get one free offers) and a reduction in the marketing and advertising of high-sugar food and drink to kids. Sugary drinks come under particular fire for boosting sugar consumption without adding any nutritional value, particularly in kids and teenagers, who drink them the most.

The report, titled Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action (PDF, 1.16Mb), clearly says: "no single action will be effective in reducing sugar intakes". This point was soon lost in the heated media and political debate that followed the report's publication.

That withstanding, the report gives the nation food for thought on what measures it is willing to accept to become healthier.

The good news is that you don't have to wait for the government to act to improve your health; read more about the hidden sugars in ordinary foods and how to achieve a healthy, balanced diet.   

What did the media and independent experts say?

BBC News lead with: "Sugar tax and offers ban 'would work'," while the Guardian took a more political angle saying: "David Cameron faces pressure to back sugar tax", adding "Prime minister urged to consider levy after official report on childhood obesity – controversially delayed for months – is finally published".

The Mail Online reported the: "Shocking toll of Britain's sugar addiction: If intake was cut to recommended levels it would save 77,000 lives and prevent 6 million rotten teeth". It added that "David Cameron did not read the report before dismissing [the] idea of a sugar tax".

The political angles relate to reports that the government is opposed to a sugar tax and (unproven) allegations that the report’s publication was delayed as a result.

Independent diet and nutrition experts quoted on Science Media Centre generally welcomed the suggestions in the report. This included the suggestion of a sugar tax as part of other widespread measures, and particularly suggestions for how to help children consume less sugar and be healthier.

Some were also quick to caution against a "war on sugar" and focusing too narrowly on sugar as an approach to tackling obesity.

Professor Vaeed Sattar, Professor of Metabolic Medicine, University of Glasgow, said: "to tackle obesity we must do much, much more [than just reduce sugar intake]. In fact, plentiful evidence still points towards excess fat as a major contributor to excess calories (more so than sugar) so we cannot become distracted by this 'sugar battle'. Equally, ready access to cheap calorific foods is pervasive and tackling such issues will be difficult. These are difficult issues. Cutting excess calories requires a broader approach and will take many years, but we do have to start somewhere, and ultimately the government needs to take the lead."

Who produced the report?

Public Health England (PHE), a government agency tasked with protecting and improving the nation’s health, published this report. 

In June 2014, PHE published Sugar reduction: Responding to the challenge. This set out what it would do to review the evidence across a broad range of areas and identify actions that were most likely to be effective in reducing sugar intake across the nation.

The findings from this review and their assessment of the evidence-based actions to reduce sugar consumption are now set out in this new report Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action (PDF, 1.16Mb).

What evidence did it look at?

The report cites evidence from previous government reports, peer-reviewed systematic reviews, market research on consumer buying habits, expert groups, and academic publications throughout its report, and says the final report has been peer-reviewed before publication. These factors would suggest it has considered a broad range of relevant evidence and views in reaching its recommendations.

What did it recommend?

While the idea of a "sugar tax" or levy has dominated media coverage of the report, it actually made eight recommendations:

  • Reduce and rebalance the number and type of price promotions in all retail outlets, including supermarkets and convenience stores and the out-of-home sector (including restaurants, cafés and takeaways).
  • Significantly reduce opportunities to market and advertise high-sugar food and drink products to children and adults across all media, including digital platforms and through sponsorship.
  • The setting of a clear definition for high-sugar foods to aid with actions 1 and 2 above. Currently the only regulatory framework for doing this is via the Ofcom nutrient profiling model, which would benefit from being reviewed and strengthened.
  • Introduction of a broad, structured and transparently monitored programme of gradual sugar reduction in everyday food and drink products, combined with reductions in portion size.
  • Introduction of a price increase of at least 10-20% on high-sugar products through the use of a tax or levy, such as on full-sugar soft drinks, based on the emerging evidence of the impact of such measures in other countries.
  • Adopt, implement and monitor the government buying standards for food and catering services (GBSF) across the public sector, including national and local government, and the NHS to ensure the provision and sale of healthier food and drinks in hospitals, leisure centres, etc.
  • Ensure accredited training in diet and health is routinely delivered to all those who have opportunities to influence food choices in the catering, fitness and leisure sectors, and others within local authorities.
  • Continue to raise awareness of concerns around sugar levels in the diet to the public, as well as health professionals, employers, the food industry etc. Encourage action to reduce intake and provide practical steps to help people lower their own and their family's sugar intake.

The report ends by saying: "Any significant progress to reduce sugar intakes would yield benefits."

What happens next?

A media spokesperson for Number 10 has ruled out the possibility of the government, at least in the short term, introducing a sugar tax. 

It is currently unclear whether any of the other seven recommendations will be taken up as public policy.

However, as with many things in life, protecting yourself and your family from the harmful effects of excess sugar – linked to obesitytype 2 diabetes and tooth decay – boils down to individual responsibility.

Read more advice about cutting sugar from your diet.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Choices