Sugar tax initiative leads to 30 per cent reduction in sales of sugary drinks, study finds

A new approach to implementing the UK government’s sugar tax initiative has significantly reduced the number of people buying sugary drinks, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Sheffield.

Cans of pop photographed from above.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University’s School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR) in collaboration with health and wellbeing charity Sheffield City Trust (SCT) and Sheffield City Council, saw a 30 per cent reduction in the sales of sugar sweetened beverages as a result of the policy.

Findings from the research also reveal that the policy led to a significant reduction in the sale of sugary drinks marketed for children.

The initiative saw the major leisure centre operator, SIV, introduce a 20p charge to all drinks with added sugar sold in their cafes and vending machines in a bid to help tackle obesity in South Yorkshire.

Results from the study also show that the policy removed 1.3 tonnes of sugar from Sheffield – the equivalent of:

  • 332,750 teaspoons of sugar
  • 1,472 lbs of fat – about 105 stone in weight

The policy also removed the equivalent of more than five million calories, which to burn off would take:

  • Over 51,000 miles of walking
  • Over 10,000 spin classes or one hour swimming sessions
  • Over 6,000 hours of five-a-side football
  • Over 31,000 hours of housework

The biggest impact was on sales of the sugary drinks marketed for children. These are typically bought by parents for their children and the sales fell significantly when the price of those drinks was increased by 20p. This is hugely important when considering the current focus on reducing childhood obesity in the UK.

Professor Liddy Goyder

University of Sheffield

Professor Liddy Goyder, who led the research team at the University of Sheffield, said: "The 20p price increase seems to have made parents think more about the choices they were making when buying drinks for their children. It was an effective nudge to encourage people to buy healthier drinks, which makes this local initiative a great example of how small changes can have a significant impact.”

Andrew Snelling, Chief Executive of SIV, which operates the leisure centres, said: “Childhood obesity rates are on the rise, bringing with it a multitude of health risks. As a health and wellbeing charity, we couldn’t stand by without taking action which is why we chose to implement this initiative, raising a significant fund to invest in educational programmes.

“We’re dedicated to helping people of all ages live well. Encouraging children to be active from a young age and educating them about nutrition will help them grow into healthier adults.”

Greg Fell, Sheffield’s Director of Public Health, said: “I’m delighted to see this research published, particularly after the recent publication of the health select committee report on childhood obesity – it is very timely.

“This is exactly the sort of measure we should be taking across many other organisations in the city and we look forward to others following SIV’s lead.”

The study concludes that the demand for full-fat drinks in leisure venues is highly elastic suggesting the policy is more effective for young people and, more specifically, when parents are purchasing drinks for their children.

A full copy of the research paper, which is published in the journal PLOS One, can be accessed via:

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