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5 years on from the introduction of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy: what do we have to show for it?

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive | British Heart Foundation

4 min read Partner content

In the midst of a crisis facing our health service, with record waits for operations, long delays in A&E and strikes not seen in generations, it could be easy for public health interventions to take a back seat. But the difference interventions such as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy can make are significant.

Preventing the onset of chronic disease remains one of the best ways to address long-term pressures on our health service. 5 years on from the introduction of the Levy, we can see the impact it’s had on our food environment, and the potential for further measures to address systemic drivers of poor health and early mortality.

The Levy has succeeded in removing 48,000 tonnes of sugar per year from soft drinks from 2015 to 2019 – the weight of 3,833 double decker buses – while sugar purchased from drinks has been reduced by 30g per household per week. Recent evidence has shown that the Levy is associated with an estimated 8% reduction in obesity rates in 10- and 11-year-old girls.

This is vital, as around 2 in 5 children in England are now above a healthy weight when they leave primary school. And we know that children living with obesity are 5 times more likely to become adults living with obesity, with an increased risk of a wide range of chronic diseases, including heart and circulatory diseases like coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular events like heart attacks and strokes.

And the Levy has had this remarkable impact without impacting on sales of soft drinks, while also raising over 1bn, funding programmes to support children’s health such as breakfast clubs.

So, as it turns out, we have quite a lot to show for it. But if we want to create an environment where healthier options are more accessible, work remains to be done – not just to curb obesity but other health impacts of diets high in fat, salt and sugar.

For example, UK adults still eat 40% more salt than the UK recommended intake of 6g a day. Higher salt intake is associated with high blood pressure, which in turn is linked to around half of heart attacks and strokes in the UK.  

Salt appears in lots of different foods, including ones you wouldn’t expect. Research from Action on Salt shows that some types of sliced bread contain as much salt as a bag of ready salted crisps. Indeed, we know that up to 85% of the salt we eat is already in our foods when we buy it, so if we really want to improve diets, we need to change the content of the foods on sale.

British Heart Foundation modelling has shown that reducing the nations’ salt intake to meet the WHO’s recommended guidelines by 2030 could generate savings of up to £11.4bn by 2035, through reduced use of the NHS and increased productivity from both patients and informal carers.

However, voluntary efforts to reduce salt and sugar content in foods have seen limited success. The Government’s voluntary sugar reformulation programme led to a reduction of just 0.2% in the out of home sector between 2015 and 2020, against a target of 20%. At that rate, it would take 500 years for the industry to hit its target.

For example, UK adults still eat 40% more salt than the UK recommended intake of 6g a day

That’s why we need to build on the success of the Levy, which has shown how a mandatory measure which incentivises industry to reduce both sugar and salt, such as that proposed in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, can work.

Reformulation doesn’t just lower sugar and salt consumption. It can boost productivity, grow the economy, reduce pressure on the NHS and ensure we live longer, healthier lives, free from cardiovascular diseases and other illnesses.

But action requires political will and a desire to create a public health legacy. And this action requires bravery in the face of criticism.

18 years on, the 2007 indoor smoking ban is considered a defining moment of Tony Blair’s premiership. This was in spite of a 2005 poll that showed 72% of Brits were against an outright ban on smoking in pubs, clubs and bars.

Thankfully, public support for reformulation is much higher than the 2005 discourse on the smoking ban, and this should embolden legislators to act, with 61% favouring a move to expand on the Levy.

While there is no silver bullet to solve the public health crisis, the smoking ban and the Soft Drinks Industry Levy have demonstrated the progress that can be made with ambitious public health interventions.

A better food environment and healthier children; 5 years on, this is the legacy of the Levy. Now is the time for politicians to build on its success.

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Read the most recent article written by Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive - Political willpower needed to tackle heart disease crisis