A Sugar Tax Could Improve Oral Health

Richard Gawel
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Sugary drinks are repeatedly named as one of the biggest culprits when it comes to poor oral health, particularly in young children. Packed full of sugar and sweeteners and containing empty calories, or calories with no nutritional impact, they have been demonized by many associated with the beverage and health industries. 

Back in March of 2016, Chancellor George Osborne of the United Kingdom announced in his budget a plan to introduce a levy on drinks containing more than 5 g of sugar per 100 ml. Effectively, the decision created a tax on sugary drinks. 

Although the tax doesn’t come into force until April 2018, it already has been generating a lot of interest. Figures are not confirmed, but some experts suggest that the amount of the tax could be as much as 20% of the sale price. But is the tax a good thing?

A Positive Message

For anyone dealing with people’s teeth, encouraging the reduced consumption of sugary drinks has become a key step in improving oral health. In terms of supporting that sentiment, the new tax really adds weight to the idea that consuming these drinks isn’t a good idea. So, it’s a positive move for the government to stand up and hit the manufacturers producing beverages with such high levels of sugar where it will hurt them the most—in their profits.

Obesity and Oral Health

There is no getting away from the link between sugar-filled drinks, oral health problems, and obesity, particularly in children. The tax is largely thought to be a response to a report by Public Health England, which identified that 29% of 11- to 18-year-olds’ daily sugar intake comes from sugary drinks.

Many health and weight loss charities believe that the additional cost that the tax adds to the price of these kinds of drinks could have a direct effect on reducing consumption, as people respond to price. The British Dental Association is fully behind the tax as a way to reduce the impact of sugar on oral health, supporting its introduction via its Make a Meal of It campaign.

Spotlight on Really Sugary Drinks

Part of the battle with drinks that are high in sugar is that consumers often don’t realize just how much sweet content they have. One positive effect of the sugar tax is that drinks will become more expensive, drawing attention to the fact that they have been caught by the tax and perhaps motivating consumers to look at the label.

Raising Cash 

Estimates put the figure raised from the tax at around £276 million per year (or $339 million), which could be plowed back into the UK via government spending. Of course, this kind of revenue gathering can be quite controversial as it comes from the public. However, most experts predict that the tax would not disproportionately affect one income group over another, so there isn’t one social group that is being particularly squeezed.

Estimates put the figure raised from the tax at around £276 million per year (or $339 million), which could be plowed back into the UK via government spending. Of course, this kind of revenue gathering can be quite controversial as it comes from the public. However, most experts predict that the tax would not disproportionately affect one income group over another, so there isn’t one social group that is being particularly squeezed.

The Backlash

Inevitably, there has been backlash against the suggested tax, and plenty has come from soft drink manufacturers. Coca Cola and the British Soft Drinks Association have already spoken out against the introduction of the tax, denying any link between sugary drinks and obesity and calling the tax “ineffective.” Others have highlighted the impact that a tax like this could have outside of the direct effect on consumers.

The think tank Oxford Economics has produced a report stating that the tax will only reduce sales by around 1.6%. It also highlighted that this could result in job losses of around 4,000 and a drop of £132 million (or $162 million) in the contribution that the beverage industry makes to the British economy. It is, however, worth noting that Oxford Economics’ clients include Coca Cola.

Will a Tax Actually Work?

There’s no doubt that obesity levels and poor oral health do need to be tackled. But whether a tax is the right way to do it remains an unanswered question. Those who claim it isn’t cite the example of Denmark, where a controversial “fat tax” along similar lines was recently repealed. The tax was aimed at foods that contained more than a certain level of saturated fat (2.3%). After just a year, the Danish government decided to repeal the tax on the basis of it having a negative effect on business and consumer buying power.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, was quoted in The New York Times as saying she wasn’t surprised that the fat tax had problems and had been repealed. Interestingly, though, she was also quoted as saying, “It’s much easier to tax specific foods, say a tax on sugary sodas, than to tax at the nutrient level like a fat tax or a sugar tax.”

The sugar tax is due to come into effect in April 2018 with the taxable percentage announced just prior to that. It will be interesting to see whether the government goes ahead with its plans and, if it does, what kind of an impact it will have on both obesity and oral health.

Dr. Levenstein is the founder and director of Smile Pad, which specializes in smile transformation, dental implants, and Invisalign. He holds a BDS and MSc in dentistry and implantology from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He can be reached at info@smilepad.co.uk.  

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