Sugar tax: I'm a doctor... Labour should extend the sugar tax to make the UK healthier - and wealthier

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The treasury needs more money and the sugar tax works - let’s do more, says Professor Robert Thomas

New evidence published this week reveals that the sugar tax on soft drinks, introduced in 2018, has been highly successful. It not only generated substantial revenue for the UK treasury, it slashed sugar intake among children and adults. Ultimately, this will save precious NHS resources as strong evidence shows that cutting consumption will make our nation stronger, fitter and healthier.

The stage is now set for the government, not only to increase tax on sugary drinks but, to introduce a tax on sugar manufactures, importers and producers of sugary foods.

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The study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, by experts from the University of Cambridge and University College London looked at UK data from 2008. Overall, 7,999 adults and 7,656 children were included in the final analysis which found that the sugar tax imposed on soft drinks, in Britain, led to a significant drop in sugar intake. Even one year after the sugar tax came into force, children were consuming 4.8g per day less sugar, while adults had an intake that was 10.9g lower.

Most of this drop was down to less sugar from soft drinks – slashing 3g off children’s daily sugar consumption and 5g off that of adults. It’s not clear yet, whether this reduction was due to drives from manufacturer’s to reduce sugar content drinks or choices from participants.

A separate study on the same data set published in November last year, in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health, found that the largest reductions in sugar intake were in children aged up to nine years old and they estimated that more than 5,500 hospital admissions for tooth extraction have been prevented each year.

The sugar tax

Facts and figures

The Soft Drinks Industry Levy - better known as the Sugar Tax - was introduced in April 2018 after being announced in 2016. It was part of the government’s bid to tackle childhood obesity and is a tax on soft drinks. The government said that even before it had come in, half of manufacturers had reduced the sugar content of drinks - the equivalent of 45m kg of sugar every year.

The levy was expected to raise £240m a year, which was originally given to the Primary Sports Premium to help schools upgrade their sports facilities, and give children access to PE equipment. The cash now goes to the general cash pot.

It raised £355m in the financial year 2022/23, £334m the previous year and £299m in 2020/21.

Despite this good news, the physical, mental health and environmental impact of sugar production and consumption is enormous. Import of sugar into the UK, on top of the millions of tonnes we already produce, in order to satisfy our demands, remains vast.

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Globally, annual consumption of sugar rocketed to 178 million metric tonnes in 2024, and is projected to increase to 188 million metric tonnes by 2025. It’s a sad fact that in some countries over 25 per cent of their agricultural land is now allocated to a crop we don’t actually need in our diets.

Our desire for processed sugar requires a massive global industrial effort from farmers, producers and distributors. This industry contributes to deforestation, water shortage, CO2 emission, and global warning which will ultimately damage the planet. In our guts, processed sugar effects our own internal ecosystem by promoting the growth of pro-inflammatory “bad” bacteria which, as you can read below, increases the risks of obesity, chronic inflammation, raised cholesterol, diabetes and hypertension which leads to premature ageing and early death from the biggest killers of mankind including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia and stroke.

This new study will hopefully empower our new government to step up the attack on processed sugar. Import tax on sugar from polluting farms could be doubled and the tax on imports from Fair Trade; and sustainably farmed sugar could be reduced. The sugar tax, which has already been introduced on drinks, could be used to subsidise the sales of appealing drinks without added sugar. New taxes could target sugar in food, particularly savoury varieties with hidden sugars.

Let’s face it, nobody wants sugar in crisps, tortillas, pasta sauces, soups and even mackerel fillets any more. This is an unhealthy, dated practice which just makes them taste sickly. If the food industry is not capable of policing itself then this study shows that tax incentives are clearly the answer. There should also be restraint on producers substituting sugar with artificial sweeteners which, from a health perspective, are not much better.

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Professor Robert Thomas says the sugar tax should be extendedProfessor Robert Thomas says the sugar tax should be extended
Professor Robert Thomas says the sugar tax should be extended

It must be noted, to save confusion, that the studies refer to processed sugar not sugar in fruit. All whole fruits (as opposed to juices) are very healthy and have relatively low sugar levels compared to processed sugar. They are rich in fibre, minerals and vitamins and phytochemicals. Large cohort studies reported that people who regularly ate one or more apples a day had a lower cancer risk and other research has linked whole fruit consumption with a lower diabetes risk despite their sugar content. As well as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects the phytochemicals in fruit actually slow the transport of sugar across the gut wall, reducing the glycemic impact.

For those of you who are still not convinced on the dangers of processed sugar, here is a reminder of its effect on wellbeing, cancer, heart disease and other chronic diseases it causes:

Diabetes: Processed sugar is rapidly digested and absorbed. In response, the body triggers an exaggerated insulin release. High levels of insulin, over time, stresses the mechanisms that remove sugar from the blood stream which leads to insulin resistance and hence type two diabetes. Diabetes increases the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Fatigue, insomnia, low mood and demotivation: The yo-yoing high and then particularly low sugar causes low energy levels then fatigue. Coupled with poor gut health and higher inflammation, this leads to low mood and demotivation to embark on other healthy lifestyle habits. Studies have shown that sugary foods in the evening can disrupt regular sleep patterns by adversely affecting sleep hormones such as melatonin and cortisol. Chronic insomniacs have an increased risk of dementia, obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease.

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Obesity: The appealing nature of high calorific sugary food combined with their low satiating nature means they tend to be eaten in excess which contributes to obesity. Furthermore, after the blood sugar levels spike in response to a sugary drink, they then drastically dip, leaving you ravenous, further encouraging overeating. Obesity raises the risk of breast, ovary and uterine cancer and other medical conditions particularly if there’s abdominal fat, combined with raised cholesterol, blood sugars and inflammation, a condition called metabolic syndrome.

High Cholesterol: Many studies are linking sugar intake with raised cholesterol, particularly LDL (Bad) varieties. The explanation is most likely that high insulin levels and chronic inflammation trick the body into thinking it’s in survival mode so needs to store more energy as cholesterol.

Poor gut health (Dysbiosis): Several studies have found that sugar preferentially feeds the bad bacteria - as opposed the good bacteria which love other forms of energy such phytochemicals. This leads to dysbiosis, gut inflammation leading to food intolerances, bloating and wind as well as bowel cancer and colitis. A chronic inflamed gut leads to “leaky gut syndrome” which causes toxins to leak into the blood stream triggering an inappropriately inflammatory reaction throughout the body. This elicits collateral damage to many organs including the joints (causing arthritis), pancreas (causing diabetes), bones (causing osteoporosis) and the brain (causing dementia). Dysbiosis is also linked to more severe consequences of Covid and having more side effects after flu and Covid vaccinations. There is a higher risk cancer at many sites, people are less likely to respond to the newer targeted and cancer treatments and research shows that cancer patients are more likely become resistant to treatments earlier.

Finally, for those of you who are interested to read more about the evidence, underlying mechanism and practical tips for nutrition, lifestyle and health you may be interested in my latest book How to Live.

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