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The potential impact of sugar taxation on young people’s dietary intake

Date: October 2017
Category: Report
Author: Kate Langley, Jill Muirie, Fiona Crawford, David Walsh

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Too much sugar is bad for our health – added sugars should not make up more than 5% of our daily energy intake from food and drinks. Secondary school-age children and young people in Scotland experience a range of adverse health impacts, including high levels of obesity and dental decay, associated with ‘added sugar’ intake in their diets which is well in excess of national recommendations.

Among 11-18 year-olds – the age group with the highest sugar intake – the single largest contributor is sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). There is, therefore, a public imperative to reduce SSB consumption in this age group. A tax on SSBs is due to be implemented by the UK government in 2018. 

This research, undertaken in 2017 by means of a rapid evidence review, set out to improve our understanding of the likely impacts of the tax, in particular on the dietary intake of secondary school-age children and young people in Scotland. A key motivation was to understand whether, given the health issues affecting young people in Scotland, the UK tax was likely to be a sufficient measure, or whether instead there would be a need for additional action by the Scottish Government. 

The specific research questions included: 

• What do we know about the potential benefits of sugar taxation in high income countries on specific population groups?

• What do we know about the potential impact of the UK government’s proposed tax?

• What can available survey and other data tell us about Scottish secondary school-age children and young people’s dietary habits (principally in relation to sugared drinks)?

• Can any meaningful conclusions be drawn from the evidence review regarding the likely impact of the sugar tax on school-age dietary consumption and health in Scotland? 

The research concluded that the prevalence of sugar-related health problems, and the major contribution that consumption of SSBs make to sugar in the diets of Scottish children and young people, builds a strong case for prioritising measures to reduce SSB consumption.

Despite some caveats regarding possible substitution effects, the potential of reduced sugar intake for improvements in weight and dental health at a population level is significant and a tax on SSBs should be considered as a part of a wider strategy to address sugar-related health problems in children and young people.

This wider strategy should focus on ‘upstream determinants’ in terms of regulation, price and availability – to improve the diet of Scottish children and young people.

Download a summary of the report (PDF).