Taxing sugary drinks packs a punch on sales – Expert Reaction

new research review finds “conclusive evidence” that a sugary beverage tax is linked with a 15% sales drop on average.

More than 45 countries have taxed sugary drinks but New Zealand has not. Researchers analysed dozens of studies on sugary drink taxes across 12 countries and five US states, showing that taxes are linked with price hikes and fewer sales of these drinks, without affecting beverage manufacturing jobs. However, more study is needed to understand the effects of these taxes on people’s diet and health.

The SMC asked experts to comment.

Professor Jonathan Broadbent, Dental Public Health and Epidemiology, University of Otago, comments:

“This article reviews the findings of dozens of studies on the outcomes of taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). The studies included in this systematic review consistently reported taxes to be effective in reducing sales of these drinks. The study also synthesises findings from studies in several different countries in a meta-analysis, suggesting a 15% reduction in SSB purchasing in response to these taxes.

“Taken together with the fact that SSBs are harmful to oral health, reduced sales of SSBs would clearly be a good thing from a dental perspective. SSBs cause dental decay and have no nutritional value; people (especially young people) would be better-off without them.

“Policymakers should consider the findings of a review of this nature – if they have previously opposed an SSB tax on the grounds of a lack of evidence for the effectiveness of an SSB tax, might it be time to consider changing that opinion?”

No conflict of interest declared.

Emeritus Professor Elaine Rush, Professor of Nutrition, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“We know that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages are associated with dental decay and diet-related non-communicable disease. This systematic review of 86 articles and meta-analysis of the data from 62 studies provides strong evidence that taxing sugary drinks increases price and reduces the quantity sold. However the evidence for reduced consumption was lacking, highlighting the difficulty of dietary assessment relying on self-reports of food consumed.

“Sugar-sweetened beverages, like alcohol and tobacco, are commodities that are associated with poor health, so access and consumption should be discouraged. However sugary drinks are only one component of the diet. At the same time the consumption of diverse wholesome foods should be encouraged, particularly in a country that imports sugar (equivalent to 300g/NZ person/day) and exports high quality foods.

“Globally and in Aotearoa as the cost of living rises the burden of malnutrition (overweight and obesity, underweight and micronutrient insufficiencies) and food insecurity also increases and this is when nutrient-dense foods like vegetables and fruits, whole grains and legumes that are known to prevent disease and improve quality of life are less likely to be purchased. If sugary drinks were taxed then that tax should be used to target reduction in price of everyday foods or for subsidised dental care for those who are least able to afford these. The New Zealand evidence-based dietary guidelines should inform food-related tax policies and government spending.”

Conflict of interest: “I am on the Health Research Council and also am Scientific Director of the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation.”

Dr Rob Beaglehole, Dentist and New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) spokesperson for nutrition and water fluoridation, comments:

“The New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) is not surprised at the findings of the study. We have long said what was found here, which is that a sugary drinks levy will hike prices and lead to lower sales of drinks with those levies.

“What is a surprise though, is that now more than 45 countries have implemented this measure before New Zealand. We were once a world leader in public health policies, it appears we’re now not even a slow follower.

“NZDA is pleased that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has commissioned this review.

“This study should be of immense interest to New Zealand policymakers. We are calling on the government to take note of this study and introduce a sugary drink industry levy modelled on the UK example as a matter of urgency.

“The evidence is clear that sugary drinks are the number one source of sugar in the NZ diet for those aged 0-30 years. Sugary drinks are one of the most significant risk factors for tooth decay, obesity and type 2 diabetes. It is for this reason we need the government to act and tackle one of the commercial determinants of tooth decay – the sugary drink industry.”

Conflict of interest: “I am the National Public Health Advocate for the DHB Chief Executives and Chairs, and also the NZDA Spokesperson for nutrition and water fluoridation. I work in the area of sugary drink reduction strategies.”