Sugary drinks tax slashed child obesity by 5,000 cases, researchers say

The launch of a sugary drink tax to put youngsters off buying sweetened drinks in a bid to reduce childhood obesity was something I supported.

Well, did it work? Yes, according to Cambridge researchers.

They estimate around 5,000 cases of obesity a year may have been avoided in girls of year six school age alone.

While obesity is a global public health problem, in England one in 10 reception-age children are already living with obesity.

That doubles to one in five in year six (10 to 11 year olds).

Children who are obese are more likely to suffer serious health problems including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and depression in both childhood and as they grow up.

In the UK, young people consume way more added sugars than is ­recommended. By late adolescence they typically consume 70g of added sugar per day, which is more than double the recommended amount of 30g, and a major source of this is sugar in sweetened drinks.

Children from poorer households are more likely to be at risk of obesity and be heavy consumers of sugar-sweetened drinks. In April 2018, to protect children from excessive sugar consumption and tackle childhood obesity, the UK government introduced a two-tier sugar tax on soft drinks – the soft drinks industry levy. The tax was targeted at manufacturers of sweet drinks to incentivise them to reduce the sugar content.

Cambridge researchers tracked changes in the levels of obesity in English children in reception year and year six between 2014 and 2020. They then compared changes in levels of obesity 19 months after the sugar tax came into effect.

For year six girls the researchers found an 8% reduction in obesity, equivalent to preventing 5,234 cases of obesity per year in this group.

Reductions were greatest in girls from deprived areas, where children consume the largest amount of sugary drinks. The most deprived areas saw a 9% reduction.

However, there was no change in obesity levels in children from reception class or year six boys.

Dr Nina Rogers of the MRC Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge said: “We urgently need to find ways to tackle the increasing numbers of children living with obesity, otherwise we risk our children growing up to face significant health problems.

“That was one reason why the UK’s soft drinks industry levy was introduced, and the evidence so far is promising. We’ve shown it is likely to have helped prevent thousands of ­children each year becoming obese.”