Health experts call for an extension of the UK sugary drinks tax to more products

Confectionary in a supermarket. Credit: Matthew Ashmore | Shutterstock

WHO Bulletin urges governments worldwide to expand sugar levies to improve food-related ill health such as tooth decay, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Experts from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) have recommended an extension of sugar levies after analysing two UK government policies aimed at making food healthier – the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL), often known as the sugary drinks tax, and the voluntary sugar reduction programme.

The researchers, publishing in the WHO Bulletin, cite the success of the sugary drinks tax, which has led to a 34.3% decrease in total sugar sales from soft drinks between 2015 and 2020. Previous analysis has shown this is associated with a reduction in obesity among Year 6 girls and a decrease in children admitted to hospital for tooth extractions.

The sugar reduction programme, which is voluntary, has comparatively only led to a 3.5% drop in sugar over the same period.

The experts urge governments to do more on both policies to increase their impact. The sugary drinks tax could, for example, be strengthened through reducing the sugar content threshold in the levy, and by extending it to sweetened milk-based drinks. The Recipe for Change campaign supports these calls; read our recommendations outlined in our 2024 Spring Budget submission

Crucially, the researchers also argue for ministers to trial a sugar tax-style levy on treat foods that are key contributors to sugar intake, such as cakes, biscuits and chocolate. Despite falling under the sugar reduction programme, these products have recorded limited reductions in sugar content.


Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular health at QMUL and one of the paper’s authors, says in The Guardian:

'Unhealthy food which contains too much salt, sugar and fat and lacks in fruit, vegetables and fibre is now the major cause of death in the world. The new government needs to control the food industry rather than being subservient to its products.'

Recipe for Change is calling for a new levy on food manufacturers to reduce salt and sugar levels and make our food healthier, building on the calls for a salt and sugar tax in the National Food Strategy. Research commissioned by the campaign has shown that this could have a significant impact on our health, the economy and even the environment.


Kate Howard, Children’s Food Campaign Coordinator at Sustain, says:

'The Government’s voluntary sugar reduction programme hasn't had the intended impact and only the mandatory sugar drinks tax has been a resounding success in reducing sugar and improving health. We welcome this analysis and the recommendations to expand the tax and include further products that remain stubbornly high in sugar.'

Read the WHO bulletin here.

Published 3 Jun 2024

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