Soft drinks industry sources have attacked the awarding of £1.5m of taxpayers’ cash into research on the impact of the soft drinks levy to a group of its most influential supporters.
Following this week’s study into the impact of Jamie Oliver’s mini-sugar levy, the NHS is funding a much larger study into the impact of the looming soft drinks levy.
Researchers will study both the public health and economic impact of the levy after it comes into force in April.
However, critics point out that the research is being spearheaded by “dyed-in-the-wool supporters” of the tax and strong critics of the food and drink industry.
The government-funded National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) team will be led by professor Martin White, of the University of Cambridge. White was part of the team that this week concluded celebrity chef Oliver’s tax in his Jamie’s Italian restaurants had been successful in reducing the short and medium-term consumption of sugar-added beverages.
The new four-year study also includes researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the University of Oxford.
White, leader for research in food behaviours and public health in the Centre for Diet and Activity Research, said: “We have talked to people working in government, public health, the food industry and health advocacy groups.
“They think the tax will have all sorts of effects, and not just on health. We are therefore considering the tax as an event in a complex system. Studying a wide range of effects of the tax will help us be more certain about the true impacts of the tax.
“For example, if purchases of sugary drinks, their sugar content, tooth decay and childhood obesity all go down, and purchases of other types of drinks go up, this will increase our confidence that the tax has had a positive impact on health.
“We anticipate the tax’s effects will go beyond health. For instance, a healthier population should be more economically productive. Or people drinking fewer sugary drinks might mean fewer jobs in the food industry. We will use economic models to predict the impacts of the tax on the whole UK economy.”
The study will look at food retailing to explore the price, sugar content, and range of drinks available prior to the tax being announced and after its introduction.
It will also study the effects of the tax on diet, childhood obesity, and hospital admissions for tooth decay.
However, one soft drinks industry source said it was a “waste of taxpayers’ money” to fund research by a group of scientists already in strong support of the tax.
“What are the chances, I wonder, of the report concluding that this intervention has been a huge success? The fact that they will have done this with £1.5m of taxpayers’ money appears to make it even more likely that will be the case.”
Among others on the research group include Dr Mike Rayner, whose studies on the impact of a soft drinks tax were taken on by Oliver for his campaign. He previously described soft drinks as the “low-hanging fruit” for government taxation to try to tackle obesity.
Another researcher, Dr Harry Rutter, has accused companies such as Coca-Cola and organisations including the BSDA of trying to influence politicians against the tax.
He recently told a conference: “The only evidence I think is needed, I believe, is the existence of price elasticity of demand. Except for some extreme luxury goods, if you put up the price of something, people will buy less of it. That’s all the evidence you need to bring in a sugar tax.”
Professor Frank Kee, chairman of the NIHR’s Public Health Research Funding Board, said: “The NIHR is proud to be supporting this independent research. We hope it will be an important step in evaluating the effects of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy on health, society and the wider economy and address major concerns such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”