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The impending soft drinks sugar levy has led to a surge in industry reformulation but it is unlikely to reduce soft drink sales, Public Health England has said.

The DH body credited the proposed levy for moves such as Lucozade Ribena Suntory’s announcement in November that it would be bringing its products below the levy’s lower threshold cut-off of 5g of sugar per 100ml.

However, PHE indicated that the latest evidence suggested the levy may not influence consumer behaviour and it was down to reformulation to cut sugar consumption.

“The soft drinks industry levy has been a driver of industry reformulation rather than to reduce consumer consumption of such products,” PHE director of diet and obesity Dr Alison Tedstone told SACN, according to minutes of a closed session released last week.

PHE would like consumers to switch from soft drinks to water or low-fat milk but “changes to consumer behaviour are difficult,” she added.

“In other countries that implemented a levy, there has been a significant reduction in sugar consumption without a change in sales,” said the minutes.

PHE admitted its stance had altered since it submitted evidence to the government in October 2015 claiming a sugar tax would slash consumption of sugar-added soft drink products.

In its Sugar Reduction: The Evidence For Action document, PHE had stated that as well as encouraging reformulation by suppliers keen to avoid a tax, a sugar tax would reduce consumer demand.Its submission stated: “The evidence suggests that increasing the price of high sugar products by 10%-20% or more through the use of a tax or levy would be likely to have an effect on purchasing behaviour and therefore sugar consumption at least in the short term. It would seem logical that this would lead to a reduction in consumption and therefore sugar intakes although the current evidence has some limitations.”

However, a PHE spokesman told The Grocer this week the government had subsequently designed the levy to “encourage reformulation rather than to impact on purchasing.”

It said some drinks may still exceed the levy threshold and it would be down to manufacturers to decide whether to pass on the cost., which “may influence purchasing behaviour.”

In addition to LRS’s announcement about drinks such as Lucozade, Tesco has brought all its own-label soft drinks below the cut-off for the levy.

PHE has held meetings with nine other food sectors ahead of setting a system of voluntary reformulation targets in March. Soft drinks were excluded because of the sugar levy, which will come into force in April next year.