Product Reformulation Means Sugar Taxes Work Even If People Don’t Buy Less As A Consequence

Taxes work to decrease purchasing, and the higher the tax, the greater their impact. Period.

Which is why it’s always struck me as odd when people question whether or not sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) taxes would affect SSB purchases (and consequently consumption).

But let’s leave that odd debate aside for a moment. If the goal of SSB taxes is to decrease added sugar consumption (which it explicitly is, while it is explicitly not about weight loss as societal obesity is not singularly caused by SSB consumption, and decreasing SSB consumption is healthy at every weight), it would appear that SSB taxes will decrease sugar consumption even if they don’t decrease purchasing.

How?

Because when SSB taxes are enacted, the beverage industry reformulates its products.

And at least according to this bulletin from the World Health Organization, they do so not insignificantly!

Of the 83 products they surveyed in both 2014 (before the UK’s SSB tax) and in 2018 (after the UK’s SSB tax), the mean sugar content decreased by 42% (from 9.1 g/100mL to 5.3 g/100mL) while the mean energy content decreased by 40% (from 38 kcal/100mL to 23 kcal/100mL). Putting this into the context of a standard 355ml can – that would represent 2.45 fewer teaspoons of sugar and 53 fewer calories per can.

And this was in response to a fairly nominal tax. Presumably larger taxes would drive larger (or more expansive) reformulations which of course would also be coupled with decreased purchasing as has been shown to not at all surprisingly occur where enacted.

All this to say, this is yet another reason why if you’re living somewhere without an SSB tax, my bet is that it’s a matter of when, not if, you will be.

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