Sugar tax on soft drinks can drive up alcohol consumption

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  Last updated January 30, 2018 at 9:52 am

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Sugar tax may not be a simple and sweet solution, with the possibility that alcohol consumption may increase according to survey.



Results from a UK-based study reveals that a sugar tax on soft drinks might not be the solution to cutting back sugar consumption.


They found that increasing the price of sugar-sweetened beverages has the potential to both decrease and increase the purchase of alcohol. The researchers conclude that a nuanced application of tax to a range of beverages may be more effective rather than a blanket tax on all high sugar drinks.


In the study, sugar sweetened drinks were group into categories: high (8g+/100 ml), medium (5-8g), and low (under 5g). They were also categorised as fruit juices, milk-based drinks, water, beer, lager, cider, wines, and spirits.


A price hike for medium sugar content drinks would seem to be most effective, while applying one to diet/low sugar drinks would seem to be the least effective, the findings indicate, suggesting that the threshold of sugar content for any price rise could be crucial, say the researchers.


Low income households spent nearly half (48%) of their total drinks expenditure on all three strengths of sugary drinks, this was lower in medium income (44%) and high income (39%) households. The trend was opposite for juices.


Related: Back to Basics on Sugars, Fats, and Obesity


They found that alcohol purchases were the most sensitive for prince changes than soft drinks.


Increases in the price of sugary drinks influenced the spending behaviour on other beverages, depending on sugar content and household income.


If ‘high’ sugar drinks prices increased, so did the purchase of diet drinks, juices, and lager. However, ‘medium’ sugar drinks and spirits dropped.


If ‘medium’ sugar drink prices increased, there were decreases in alcoholic drinks such as beer, lager, and wine. Thus, the researchers propose that a tax on these medium sugar drinks had the most benefit with the reduction of alcohol, which also contains many hidden sugars.


Meanwhile, if prices in diet or ‘low’ sugar drinks increased, all other types of drinks increased including beer, cider, and wine.


The effect of prices rises affect those in low income households the most.


They used household expenditure data on food and drink in 212 and 2013 from a sample that represented around 32,000 UK homes. The data also provided social and demographic information for each household.


“This mixed picture indicates the complexity of estimating the impact of a single price increase,” write the authors in their paper.


Lessons from around the world


These conclusions are echoed by Dr Alan Barclay, an accredited practicing dietitian and nutritionist, author and a Research Associate at the University of Sydney.


“This new research based on dietary modelling in the UK considers the inter-relationships between the subject of the tax (sugar-sweetened beverages) and other drinks, and has demonstrated that, in theory, increased taxation of some soft drinks may unintentionally increase the purchase of some alcoholic beverages, offsetting health benefits.”


Australia currently does not have a sugar tax although experts on both sides of the argument have been made to the beverage industry as well as policymakers.


“In Australia, consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks is declining while consumption of alcoholic beverages is increasing. These new data suggest that an increase in the sugar-sweetened beverage tax (sugar-sweetened beverages are already subject to the 10 per cent GST) in Australia may increase these trends. Alcoholic beverages are the primary source of discretionary kilojoules in Australia, providing more than twice as many as soft drinks (4.8 per cent vs 1.9 per cent of energy),” said Dr Barclay.


“In 2010, the Henry Tax Review recommended changes to the way alcoholic beverages are taxed in Australia, but these changes have not been implemented. Based on this new modelling from the UK, it would seem wise that if an additional tax was introduced on sugar-sweetened beverages, taxation of alcoholic beverages would also need to be reviewed, to minimise the risk of unintended consequences.”


Julia Stafford, Executive Officer of the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth at Curtin University says, “Getting pricing policy right for alcohol and sugary drinks is very important for the health of the community, and should be supported by restrictions on marketing and availability. For governments concerned about the health harms from alcohol and sugary drinks, there is much more that can be done to control how the products are promoted, especially in terms of kids’ exposure to advertising. A comprehensive policy approach which considers the price, promotion and availability of these products will have the greatest health benefits.”


“While international research is important to consider, there are differences between Australia and the UK that may mean the results are not directly relevant here. For example, how alcohol is made available and how alcohol is taxed are different, so outcomes could be different for Australia.”


Possible solutions beyond a sugar tax in Australia


While the study may have different outcomes in Australia, there are other ways beyond a sugar tax that could also help better inform consumers.


Professor Robin Room, a sociologist at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University has been an advisor to the World Health Organization on drug and alcohol-related issues since 1975. He is Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal, Drug and Alcohol Review offers some suggestions for Australia, “The paper gives the average kilocalories for alcoholic beverages – at least as high per litre as well as for sugary drinks. In Australia, this information is on every other drink and food product, but not on alcoholic beverages.  Changing the policy so the information is on the label would be a good first step in getting us all thinking about the contribution  of alcohol drinking to weight gain.”


“A minimum floor price for alcohol is going into effect this year in Scotland, and should be adopted in Australia. This would have more effect in reducing overconsumption of alcohol than any conceivable sugar tax.”


Several countries around the world have imposed sugar taxes on sugary drinks to fight against rising obesity rates. Later this year, the UK sets to follow a 26 other countries who have already adopted the sugar tax.


The research was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.


Expert comments gathered by the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC).


Related content


Sugary drinks take toll on Indigenous health


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About the Author

Kelly Wong
Online producer at Australia's Science Channel. I have a background in immunology, food blogging, volunteering, and social media. I'm passionate about creating communities on social media and getting them excited about science. I enjoy good food and I am on an eternal mission to find the best ice cream. Find me on Twitter @kellyyyllek

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