Tuesday, May 1st was heralded by the Irish Heart Foundation as the most significant day yet in the fight against childhood obesity in Ireland. Last week a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks came into force after years of planning. While it is Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe who will get the credit – or the criticism – for introducing the tax, it was first mooted by his predecessor Michael Noonan. It will apply at a rate of 30 cent per litre if drinks have over 8g of sugar per 100ml, while a 20 cent per litre tax will apply if drinks have between 5g and 8g of sugar per 100ml. Drinks with less than 5g of sugar will not be taxed. So, Red Bull and Pepsi have 11g of sugar per 100ml and Coca Cola has 10.6g. All these drinks will be taxed at the highest level. A two-litre bottle of Coke which cost €2.40 will now cost €3. A 500ml bottle will cost an extra 15 cent, while a 330ml can will cost 10 cent more.
The reason for the tax is because we are fat, and getting fatter. Ireland will be the fattest country in Europe by 2025. Projections from the World Health Organisation predict Ireland will become the world’s most obese nation in the world by 2030. Their model predicts that 47% of both men and women will be obese (WHO Global Health Observatory Data Repository, 2016). The healthcare expenditure due to the overweight and obese populations in 2009 was estimated at €437 million for the Republic of Ireland (ROI) and €127.41 million for Northern Ireland. Productivity lost due to overweight and obesity related health issues was up to €865 million for ROI and €362 million for NI (Dee et al., 2015). But don’t worry, this new sugar tax will save Ireland; it will make us all thin and svelte! But it won’t …… It won’t limit the consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages or take the pressure of an ailing health service. Unfortunately the so-called ‘health-related food tax’ wont work and the current government already know this.
Hungary was one of the first countries to introduce “A Public Health Food Tax” on packaged products with high sugar, saturated fat or salt levels in September 2011. A tax on saturated fats was introduced in Denmark (October 2011). 2011 also saw a re-introduction of a tax on sweets (including soft drinks and ice cream) in Finland and at the beginning of 2011, France introduced a tax on drinks with added sugar or sweetener. Mexico became the first country in Latin America to approve an excise tax on unhealthy food. To date, very few reports have materialized on whether these taxes have caused any changes in consumption. A report from Finland described the first year of the tax on sweets as a success, it raised more revenue than expected and the consumption of sweets dropped. Similarly, preliminary figures from Denmark, Hungary and France suggested a reduction in the spending on sugar. However, the more recent figures reported sales of sugary products return to previous levels, meaning that the introduction of this tax in Ireland unfortunately will only have a short term effect.
Rather than punish people financially for choosing unhealthy food, it would be more effective to offer tax credits and incentives for people to be chose healthy options. Positive incentives rather than negative costs would offer more encouragement by rewarding good choices rather than punishing bad ones. A tax credit for those with an appropriate body fat percentage and a body-mass index of less than 26 (A BMI of 30 or over is considered obese). Maybe a motivational tax credit rather than a punitive tax on sugar may work better. Positive financial incentives, e.g. subsidising the price of participation in activities, would potentially lead to an increase in the quantity of physical activity in all populations regardless of age (Anokye et al., 2014). The best way for the Irish government to help the struggling health system is for fewer people to need its services! The reality is that the introduction of a sugar tax may result in an initial reduction in consumption of sweets and fizzy drinks, but unless the “sugar taxes” raised are redirected to fund positive incentives to increase physical activity we will remain on target to be the one of the fattest nations in the world with a health system clogged with obesity related issues. The Irish government and health policy planners would be better advised to use more carrot and less stick.
(2016). Trends in adult body-mass index in 200 countries from 1975 to 2014: a pooled analysis of 1698 population-based measurement studies with 19.2 million participants. Lancet 387, 1377-1396.
Anokye NK, Pokhrel S & Fox-Rushby J. (2014). Economic analysis of participation in physical activity in England: implications for health policy. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 11, 117.
Dee A, Callinan A, Doherty E, O’Neill C, McVeigh T, Sweeney MR, Staines A, Kearns K, Fitzgerald S, Sharp L, Kee F, Hughes J, Balanda K & Perry IJ. (2015). Overweight and obesity on the island of Ireland: an estimation of costs. BMJ Open 5, e006189.