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Taxing soft drinks…

August 17, 2012

I get a lot of emails from promoters of diets and products and studies asking me to report on their stuff.  Between 30 and 40 a day.  Most of the stuff is pure crap.  A little hint to the promoters… if you put, ‘fact or myth’ in the subject line, I am going with myth without doing any further looking.  In any case, I am printing the following press release as is to stimulate a discussion.  My mind is far from made up on the issue of taxing soft drinks.  I honestly don’t know where I stand on the issue.  The press release is a well reasoned discussion on some of the pros and cons.   How do you stand on this issue?  What are your thoughts and concerns?

By the way, most news agencies print press releases as news.  In fact the bulk of what you see as news on the internet is simply press releases.  There is no journalism and no reporting going on, just reprinting and sometimes repackaging of a corporate statement.  I bring your attention to this because the press release below isn’t news.  It is just what it says it is, and I am only printing it here because it is an excellent discussion on some of the pros and cons in a very difficult issue.  Let me know what you think.

Press Release

Release date:15/08/2012

Country of issue: United Kingdom

**with apologies for cross posting**

Should we tax Soft Drinks?

Jack Winkler’s commentary on a report by Ng et al., challenges the proposal of a 10% tax on ‘sugar-sweetened beverages’ (SSB). Both articles appear in the current issue of British Journal of Nutrition and raise important questions about soft drink taxation and consumption.

In their report,  ‘Patterns and trends of beverage consumption among children and adults in Great Britain, 1986–2009’, the authors Ng, Ni Mhurchu, Jebb and Popkin conclude that a 10 % increase in the price of SSB could potentially result in a decrease of 7.5 ml/capita per d. Their analysis implies that taxation or other methods of shifting relative costs of these beverages could be a way to improve beverage choices in Great Britain.

While applauding the ‘heroic analysis’ of the UK food purchase and consumption data Winkler observes in his commentary that the 10% tax proposed would lead only to a 4.6% reduction in SSB purchases. In real terms this equates to a less than gram of sugar (or one sip from a 2 litre bottle).

Moreover the nature of consumer behaviour, where consumers regularly pay 950% extra for a well-known brand over a value brand, a 10% tax will have little effect. Crucially, the soft drink market is complex and the nature of supermarket deals plus variations in price between locations and outlets renders the 10% increase meaningless.  Winkler also suggests that popular resistance amongst manufacturers and consumers alike mean that no politicians are likely to adopt the 10% tax idea anyway.

Importantly the Ng report does not clarify an opinion on the related issues of fruit juices and sweeteners. The leading brand of Unsweetened apple juice contains more sugar than the leading cola brand, and nothing is suggested about this problem. Winkler remarks ‘Anyone serious about reducing sugar evading cannot evade the issue’.

Winkler suggests that by not discussing ‘Sweeteners’ and the increase in consumption of sugarfree beverages, nutritionists are neglecting an important aspect of potential nutritional policy. Manufacturers effectively charge a premium for sugarfree products even though they cost less than SSB’s to produce. A tax exemption on sweeteners is one instrument to invert this trend, and is a viable consideration when looking at ways to reduce sugar consumption.

Winkler concludes that not only is a tax on SSBs not likely to be adopted but even if it was it would be ineffective but the Ng report does open up a lot of questions for Nutrition Policy makers:

‘First, what are we seeking to do, change people or change foods? Second, the issue contrasts principled and pragmatic strategies. Should we, as a matter of principle, seek to switch people to healthy diets directly and quickly? Or should we start pragmatically with the popular foods that most people eat most of the time, then gradually improve their nutrient profiles?’ Finally, price instruments can punish the bad, reward the good, or both.  In short: ‘Make the healthy choice the cheaper choice’


‘Why soft drink taxes will not work’
J.T. Winkler
British Journal of Nutrition / Volume 108 / Issue03

‘Patterns and trends of beverage consumption among children and adults in Great Britain, 1986–2009’
Shu Wen Ng, Cliona Ni Mhurchu, Susan A. Jebb and Barry M. Popkin
British Journal of Nutrition / Volume 108 / Issue 03

These papers are freely available online for a limited period:

About British Journal of Nutrition

British Journal of Nutrition provides research on human and clinical nutrition, animal nutrition and basic science from all of the specialities involved in nutrition research, including molecular and cell biology and the emerging area of nutritional genomics

Published on behalf of The Nutrition Society. For more information

About The Nutrition Society

The Nutrition Society was established in 1941 ‘to advance the scientific study of nutrition and its application to the maintenance of human and animal health’. Highly regarded by the scientific community, the Society is the largest learned society for nutrition in Europe. Membership is worldwide but most members live in Europe.

Membership is open to those with a genuine interest in the science of human or animal nutrition

For further information about The Nutrition Society, go to:

About Cambridge Journals

Cambridge University Press publishes nearly 300 peer-reviewed academic journals across a wide spread of subject areas, in print and online. Many of these journals are the leading academic publications in their fields and together they form one of the most valuable and comprehensive bodies of research available today.

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About Cambridge University Press

Cambridge University Press is the publishing business of the University of Cambridge. Dedicated to excellence, its purpose is to further the University’s objective of advancing knowledge, education, learning, and research.

Its extensive peer-reviewed publishing lists comprise 45,000 titles covering academic research, professional development, over 300 research journals, school-level education, English language teaching and bible publishing.

Playing a leading role in today’s international market place, Cambridge University Press has over 50 offices around the globe, and it distributes its products to nearly every country in the world.

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