Sugar tax is working but voluntary scheme is not, report finds

Campaigners demand a sugar tax on ALL foods as report reveals the levy on drinks has led to a 30% drop – but progress is stalling on cutting it out of puddings and sweets

  • Sugar levy saw a 30% reduction in amount of sweet stuff in drinks since 2017 
  • Campaigners slammed government as its voluntary scheme only saw 3% drop
  • They said firms would continue to ‘drag their heels’ unless forced to slash sugar 

Campaigners have slammed the government’s voluntary sugar reduction scheme after it was revealed to be 10 times less effective than its compulsory drinks tax.

A two-year progress report found the levy on sugary drinks caused the amount of sugar in them to plummet by 29 per cent.

But the government’s non-compulsory request for companies to cut down on the amount of sugar in their snacks only saw the sweet stuff drop by 3 per cent.

Critics said the findings were ‘a wake up call’ and that firms would continue to ‘drag their heels’ unless forced to slash sugar from their products.

A levy on sugary drinks has seen a 30 per cent fall in the amount of the sweet stuff in products 

The government introduced a tax of 24p per litre last year on highly sugary drinks and 18p for medium-sugar ones.

This sent companies scrambling to alter their products to avoid being hit with the levy.

The government’s other anti-obesity strategy was a non-compulsory ‘challenge’ to food firms.

It encouraged them to reduce the amount of sugar in cakes, sweets, biscuits and desserts by 20 per cent by then end of 2020.

But the latest Public Health England report found it that overall sugar in these products had only dropped by 3 per cent since 2017.

Sue Kellie, deputy CEO at British Dietetic Association,  said: ‘This second progress report on the voluntary sugar reduction programme shows a worrying lack of progress overall. 

‘A 2.9 per cent reduction by 2018 is so far short of the 20 per cent target by 2020 as to make it seem very unlikely that it will be achieved.

‘It is disappointing that there is so much variation between both food categories and between different food companies. 


From April 2018, soft drinks companies have been required to pay a levy on drinks with added sugar. 

If a drink contains between 5g and 8g of sugar per 100ml the tax is 18p per litre, whereas if a drink has more than 8g of sugar per 100ml, the tax is 24p.

Fruit juices and milk are not included in the tax. 

The move aims to help tackle childhood obesity. Sugar-sweetened soft drinks are now the single biggest source of dietary sugar for children and teenagers.   

Some drinks, including Fanta, Lucozade, Sprite, Dr Pepper and Vimto, had their recipes changed so they contained less than 5g of sugar and the price did not need to be put up.

However, others like Coca Cola and Pepsi refused to reduce the amount of sugar and, as a result, the price of them increased.  

The Government has predicted the levy will raise £240million a year, which will be spent on sports clubs and breakfast clubs in schools.

The sugar tax raised £153.8m in the first six months after it was introduced, between April and October 2018. 

‘It is clear that some are engaging with the voluntary scheme while others are choosing to ignore it. 

‘That some companies have increased the amount of sugar in their products is particularly worrying.

‘By comparison, the compulsory soft drinks industry levy has driven a significant reduction. 

‘We hope the government will consider whether a compulsory approach in other food and drink categories could drive much faster change.

‘Reformulation is one of a number of ways that government needs to act to support consumers to make healthier food choices. 

‘We hope that the lack of progress will encourage government to take action in other areas, such as the introduction of tighter restrictions on advertising and promotion of high fat, sugar and salt products.’

Katharine Jenner, campaign director at Action on Sugar said it was ‘shameful’ that food companies had only cut sugar by 3 per cent.

She said: ‘It is shameful that other manufacturers are dragging their heels and will likely fail to meet the 20 per cent target. Every year more and more children are becoming obese.

‘However, the government should be proud that they were brave enough to introduce the soft drinks levy which has been remarkable in that it allowed for significant sugar reduction in drinks. 

‘Manufacturers were then able to avoid paying the tax– resulting in a much bigger reduction of sugar content in drinks in the UK than originally anticipated.

‘This demonstrates that when properly motivated, the food industry can give us healthier options. 

‘It is imperative that this momentum and levy continues and is applied to calorie-dense processed foods and milk-based drinks that meet an agreed criterion set by the government.’  

The PHE report found only yogurts, which had been reduced by 10 per cent, and breakfast cereals, 8.5 per cent, were on track to meet the five-year target.

The government’s other anti-obesity strategy was a non-compulsory ‘challenge’ to food firms, but it only saw sugar drop by 3 per cent in snacks (file image)

The sugar content of puddings actually rose 0.5 per cent, while sweets went up 0.6 per cent.

There was little change for chocolate or ice cream and lollies, which all saw just a 0.3 per cent reduction in sugar. 

The sugar content of cakes fell by almost 5 per cent, while the out of home sector -including restaurants, pubs and cafes – saw a 5 per cent drop among all foods. 

Helen Dicken, Assistant Director of Policy and Campaigns at Diabetes UK, said the government’s voluntary scheme had ‘struggled’.

She added: ‘This report makes it clear that, where the Soft Drinks Industry Levy has succeeded, reformulation efforts through the sugar reduction programme have struggled. 


The amount of sugar a person should eat in a day depends on how old they are.

Children aged four to six years old should be limited to a maximum of 19g per day.

Seven to 10-year-olds should have no more than 24g, and children aged 11 and over should have 30g or less. 

Meanwhile the NHS recommends adults have no more than 30g of free sugars a day.

Popular snacks contain a surprising amount of sugar and even a single can of Coca Cola (35g of sugar) or one Mars bar (33g) contains more than the maximum amount of sugar a child should have over a whole day.  

A bowl of Frosties contains 24g of sugar, meaning a 10-year-old who has Frosties for breakfast has probably reached their limit for the day before they even leave the house.  

Children who eat too much sugar risk damaging their teeth, putting on fat and becoming overweight, and getting type 2 diabetes which increases the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Source: NHS 

‘With the programme very unlikely to meet the 20 per cent target, Government needs to start exploring different options now.

‘The levy has demonstrated its potential to prevent obesity in up to 140,000 adults and children each year and, in turn, prevent nearly 19,000 cases of type 2 diabetes – but it cannot act in isolation. 

‘A range of other measures should be introduced such as including milk-based drinks in the levy; mandating calorie labelling in restaurants, cafes and takeaways; and a 9pm watershed on junk food marketing.

‘That said, the role of reformulation in tackling childhood obesity cannot be understated. 

‘The report is a wakeup call to Government to implement the bold and decisive action needed to address the obesity epidemic.’

Caroline Cerny from the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) said: ‘Compared to the voluntary sugar reduction programme, the use of a financial levy has proved a highly effective incentive to get the drinks industry to reduce sugar in their products.

‘The mixed and disappointing lack of progress in the voluntary sugar reduction programme shows that while some companies are taking a responsible approach and reducing sugar from everyday products, far too many are simply not doing enough. 

‘If the food industry continues to fail to work towards Government reformulation targets then regulatory measures such as a levy, should be used to incentivise them. 

‘Child health simply can’t wait for the food industry to get its act together and we won’t meet the target of halving child obesity by 2030 at this snail’s pace of change.

‘It’s particularly worrying that despite an overall small reduction in sugar content of products, the amount of sugar sold has increased. 

‘This is a clear sign that reduction programmes alone are not enough and the Government now needs to swiftly and fully implement its promises to stem the tide of unhealthy food marketing to children with restrictions on promotions and a 9pm watershed on junk food adverts.’ 

Professor Michael Escudier, dean of the faculty of dental surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, said the report gives a clear indication of what is working and what is not.

He added: ‘We all try to get the balance right between the ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ approach, but we see today it’s the sticks that are working. 

‘The soft drinks industry levy has been successful… Meanwhile progress has been limited for the products covered by the voluntary sugar reduction programme.’ 

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