In the lead up to October’s budget, a policy group on obesity established by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI) advocated the introduction of a tax of up to 20% on sugar sweetened drinks. Hungary, Finland, France and a number of US states have already introduced similar taxes. However, there is still considerable debate as to whether the imposition of such taxes is effective or even appropriate.
The RCPI policy group called on the Government to take action, referring to the fact that one in four Irish school-children are classified as overweight or obese as “an epidemic”. The World Health Organisation and the EU have also identified childhood obesity as the most important public health problem in the developed world.
A Health Impact Assessment of a proposed tax on sugar sweetened drinks, commissioned by the Department of Health in 2012, concluded that research on the relationship between the consumption of sugar sweetened drinks and obesity is inconclusive as weight gain depends on a number of factors. It also found that although price increases tend to decrease demand, the degree to which this happens is difficult to predict as consumer behaviour and potential industry responses can vary.
A similar study carried out in the UK and published in the British Medical Journal in October 2013 found that while a tax on sugar sweetened drinks should be used as part of a suite of measures to tackle obesity, it should not be considered in isolation. However, some commentators in the UK have suggested that as the cost of sugar sweetened drinks is so low, any price increase would be unlikely to affect consumption.
Despite the inconclusive nature of the research in this area, proposals to tax sugar sweetened drinks are gaining traction. This is an issue which is likely to remain on the agenda for health groups, industry, policy-makers and consumers for the foreseeable future.
Contributed by Micheál Mulvey