By Dr Kawther Hashem, Campaign Lead at Action on Sugar

The long-awaited 2019 sugar reduction progress report has been published, reflecting on the last three years of sugar reduction efforts in breakfast cereals, yogurts, chocolate, sweets, just to mention a few categories, which contribute the most sugar to the UK diet.

Action on Sugar were the first to call for this kind of programme when we launched in 2014 and we were glad to see the government listen by 2016. However, we were clear from the start that we had strong reservations about how the programme was structured and whether it had any teeth to actually convince the food companies to take is seriously. The need for a strong threat of regulation and closely monitored (& transparent) measures was stressed really early on.

Three years into the four year programme, we are nowhere near the target of a 20% reduction by 2020. Over the years we have noticed reductions in some products, but the total picture shows a disappointing story. On average, the food companies have cut only 3% of sugar from their products.

The sugar levy (tax) on soft drinks was announced at the same time, so it was assumed by many that if companies didn’t take the sugar reduction programme seriously and helped consumers reduce their sugar intake by changing their recipes (reformulating), reducing portion sizes and shifting sales (which are increasingly important), then similar taxes would be imposed. In fact in 2018’s childhood obesity plan: chapter 2, the Government explicitly highlighted that further measures would be considered if companies didn’t reformulate.

This kind of threat only works if it is specific and time-bound, as illustrated so wonderfully in this recent report. Let me take you back to the start of sugary drinks levy to set the scene. As the sugary drinks legislation was being finalised, it became clear that milk-based drinks would be excluded and would be included in the voluntary sugar reduction programme instead. By 2017, we were sitting in meetings discussing the reduction targets for milk-based drinks. The possibility of including milk-based drinks in the sugary drinks levy was clear, specific and timebound; if companies didn’t play ball, it was possible with a tweak of the legislation to add them to the tax.

Looking at the reductions made by milk-based drinks over the last two years they have achieved a whopping 22% reduction in sugar. Now that is how you get this kind of work done.

If the government had made a similar specific and time-bound commitment about the other products in the voluntary programme, we might have seen some different results or at least have the promise of stronger measures for next year. For instance, doesn’t a tax on confectionery products, which have made hardly any progress, make logical sense now?

Oh. and finally, just to add another reason to show how taxes work, the sugar levels in lemonades, colas and other soft drinks have fallen by astonishing 44% (actual total, taking into account increase in sales is 35.4%) since 2015, with many companies taking out sugar to avoid the tax.

Need another reason to not have taxes of this kind? They not only generate revenue from companies to be spent on school breakfast clubs (as it was at the start of the sugary drinks levy), but actually make companies do the right thing. Now that’s what you call fast acting public health nutrition policy.