Soft Drinks Are Killing You, So Why Don’t We Have A Sugar Tax Already?
If you’ve been keeping an eye on health news, you would’ve noticed the shrieking from tabloids about an all-new study that has found that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages — soft drinks, soda or pop to you and I — is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and a whole host of other diseases.
This is hardly surprising news.
We have known for decades now that drinking large amounts of sugary drinks is terrible for your health. It’s not really that complex — sugary drinks are filled with calories, easy to consume, and have very little nutritional value. You drink enough of them and you are going to gain weight.
And, as we all know, obesity isn’t the best for your health.
So what does this new study add to the equation?
Narrative Reviews Aren’t Amazing
The Big Scary Study that’s just come out isn’t actually original research, at least not in the sense that most people think of it. If you want to look over all of the evidence for a scientific question, you can do what’s called a systematic review. Without going into too much detail, this is a type of scientific study that allows you to look over every study published on a topic and summarize all that evidence in one place.
That is not what these researchers did.
Instead, they conducted what is commonly termed a narrative review. This is basically a trawl through the literature in a fairly relaxed fashion, giving you a broad understanding of the topic but without rigorously applying scientific standards to your search. Narrative reviews are useful because they allow you to understand the general trend of research, but they don’t really definitively answer questions like “Are soft drinks killing us?”.
To put it another way, this Big Scary Study isn’t actually proof of anything at all.
So why do I agree wholeheartedly with their conclusions?
Decades Of Evidence
The thing about this study is that the main aim was to summarize decades of evidence on soft drinks and their impact on chronic disease. For some questions, further evidence isn’t really the issue. Soft drinks have long been established as an independent risk factor for developing everything from heart problems to knee arthritis.
They aren’t very good for you at all.
So a narrative review, in this context, isn’t a bad choice. We have systematic reviews telling us that soft drinks are terrible for our health already: what we needed to know was what the general trend is and how that impacts policy.
Which brings us to a sugar tax.
Every time someone mentions a sugar tax*, you can hear the screaming of soft drink companies from hundreds of kilometers away. “Sugar taxes don’t work!” They scream, clad in red-and-white baseball caps “They’re restrictive and useless and they impact our sales”.
Of these points, only one is true.
Guess which one?
Yes, sugar taxes will almost certainly impact soft drink sales. That is, of course, pretty much the entire point: make sugary drinks more expensive so people don’t drink them and then they don’t die.
What an evil idea.
The evidence is clearly in favor of introducing a tax on sugar. It is unlikely to massively reduce obesity — the benefits from countries like Mexico who have introduced similar taxes are fairly small — but even a tiny impact on obesity will save countless lives.
Sounds like a good idea to me.
So why don’t we already tax sugar? Well, some few places do, but in general the political will hasn’t been there for most countries in the world. It’s easy to label sugar taxes as “nanny state” and ignore them, despite the fact that there is sound evidence supporting them from evaluations around the world.
Taxing sugar is a relatively small way to stop people dying from diseases like diabetes, but it is an important one.
The Big Scary Study that just came out represents a real and frightening truth: our current diet is untenable, and we must do something to change it.
A sugar tax is a great first step.
*When I’m talking about a sugar tax, it’s important to note that I’m not talking about a tax on all sugar. Usually, sugar taxes are proposed as a levy on products which contain very high levels of excess sugar — in this article, I’m mostly referring to a Mexico-like solution which targets products like soft drinks specifically.