The introduction of a sugar sweetened drink tax in the Republic has been heralded in some quarters as the “most important day yet in fight against childhood obesity”. Critics have said it will be ineffective.
From Tuesday, soft drinks with 5-8g of sugar per 100ml are subject to a tax of 20 cent per litre while drinks with more than 8g of sugar per 100ml will attract a levy of 30 cent per litre.
The tax adds 60 cent on to the price of a 2-litre bottle of Coca Cola and similar sugar-sweetened drinks. The Government has estimated the tax will yield about €40 million in a full year.
It has been welcomed by the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) which has been lobbying for its introduction for seven years.
The organisation’s head of advocacy Chris Macey said the measure was “the first signal that Government is prepared to take tough action to tackle the [obesity] crisis” and he suggested it had already paid off “due to a major programme of reformulation by manufacturers to reduce sugar levels below the thresholds chosen for the tax”.
He said it demonstrated “a significant commitment on the part of Government to meet its duty of care to protect children in particular from this mortal threat to their health”.
He added that more “hard decisions” will be required including regulatory interventions banning junk food marketing to children, the development of nutrition standards to protect students from a growing proliferation of unhealthy food provision within and in the vicinity of second-level schools, and a major programme to increase accessibility of healthy food within disadvantaged areas.
Mr Macey called for a portion of the proceeds of the new tax to be ringfenced to fund measures “targeted at children’s future health, particularly in disadvantaged areas where obesity rates are highest”.
He said Revenue could support a wide range of measures, including the development of new family food initiatives, further expansion of the school meals programme, removal of vending machines and the provision of free drinking water in all schools.
While the tax will see the price of many popular drinks climb, more than three quarters of the soft drinks sold in Ireland will not be impacted.
The Irish Beverage Council, a division of lobby group Ibec, said this was due to the industry’s “35-year journey to reduce sugar content in drinks”.
“Soft drinks companies were early movers in sugar reduction, beginning in 1983 when the first sugar-free carbonated drinks were introduced,” its director Colm Jordan said.
“We accept the Government’s sincerity in addressing the complex issue of obesity, and are committed to working on shared solutions that deliver real public health benefits,” he said. He noted 10 billion calories have been removed annually between 2005 and 2012 from the national diet through a reduction in sugar content in soft drinks.
“Wherever a tax has been introduced it has failed to tackle obesity. Notwithstanding this, we have co-operated fully with the design and implementation of the tax,” he said.
Orla O’Leary, of business consultancy firm Ayming, said long anticipated plans to tax sugar sweetened drinks had forced companies who had been “steadily making their drinks healthier” to “scramble to find innovative ways to rethink manufacturing processes and successfully reduce sugar content, without a potentially profit-devastating change in taste”.
She suggested research is likely to continue as the “developed markets push in a healthier direction, so manufacturers should keep the ball rolling, take a long-term view and continue successfully developing more consumer-friendly products”.