Brexit’s impact on the sugar tax: Greater reductions in coronary heart disease mortality rates

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15 Oct 2018 --- The British “sugar tax” will continue to reduce coronary heart disease deaths (CHD), regardless of whether the terms of the UK's impending exit from the EU are “soft” or “hard,” finds a study published in Public Health Nutrition. The researchers identified that reductions in CHD mortality were 4 percent and 8 percent greater under “soft” and “hard” Brexit scenarios, respectively.

A “soft” Brexit outcome is where the UK establishes a free trading agreement with the EU, and a “hard” Brexit is where the World Trade Organization (WTO) tariffs would be applied. The trade arrangements that the UK will adopt after Brexit are likely to influence the price of food and food ingredients including sugar, which currently follows European regulations under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Brexit could, therefore, potentially interfere with the effectiveness of the sugar-sweetened beverage (SBB) levy in the UK, which is said to prevent a number of CHD deaths.

“Our study suggests that the UK SBB industry levy is likely to be resilient to potential Brexit effects on sugar price due to changes in the UK trade regime, even if trade occurs under WTO regulations. It also suggests that even under alternate Brexit scenarios the SSB levy is likely to remain progressive in terms of CHD inequalities,” says Seferidi Paraskevi, Research Assistant, and PhD student at the School of Public Health, Imperial College London.

“This is the first study to quantify the potential impacts of Brexit on the SSB levy effectiveness through changes in the UK trade policy,” she adds.

What did the study find?
The SSB levy could increase SSB prices by approximately 38 percent leading to an estimated 26 percent decrease in SSB intake in England, the study suggests. This would prevent approximately 370 CHD deaths and generate approximately 4,490 life years in 2021. 

The SSB levy was also estimated to improve health inequalities, with 100 CHD deaths averted in the most deprived quintile compared to 50 in the most affluent.

The results suggested that the SSB levy would be resilient to both “soft”  and a “hard” Brexit. Even under both modeled Brexit scenarios, the findings suggested that the SSB levy would still benefit people of higher deprivation the most.

In order to determine these results a previously validated IMPACT Food Policy model and probabilistic sensitivity analysis were used to estimate the effect of each scenario on CHD deaths prevented or postponed and life-years gained, stratified by age, sex and socio-economic circumstance, in 2021.

The “sugar tax,” is an industry levy on SSB, which was implemented in the UK in April 2018 as part of the UK Government's Childhood Obesity Plan. 

“Brexit presents a crucial opportunity to achieve a healthier food system in the UK if negotiations deliver a fiscal and regulatory environment which promotes population health,” says Martin O'Flaherty, Professor of Epidemiology at the Department of Public Health and Policy at the University of Liverpool.

Regarding what oppurtunities it can present to the UK, O’Flaherty tells NutritionInsight, “It will depend on how the UK focus on Public Health interventions in the fiscal and regulatory policy space is after Brexit. Within our current regulatory framework we have done a lot of progress, but there is  still a lot of work to do. The UK will need to be very ambitious on preserving our current public health levers when transitioning afterBrexit andd find any opportunity to powerfully shape our food environments through food policy structural interventions. Brexit will introduce a new agricultural regime in the UK. There lies an opportunity for an agricultural policy that prioritises public health and promotes healthier diets.”

The wider food industry has been keeping a very close eye on Brexit negotiations due to the potential hits industry may take regarding supply chains, for example.

Failing to reach a Brexit deal could end up costing the UK £9.3bn (US$12.2bn) a year as food retailers and their supply chain face a mass of additional tariffs as a result of the government not negotiating a trading deal with the EU, a recent report from Barclays has predicted. 

The report calculates widespread disruption and price hikes with the “Hard Brexit” model forecast to create an average tariff of 27 percent for food and drink supply chains which is significantly more than the 3-4 percent levy that would hit non-food products. You can read more about this on our sister website, FoodIngredientsFirst

By Laxmi Haigh

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