Taxing high sugar snacks such as biscuits, cakes, and sweets might be more effective at reducing obesity levels than increasing the price of sugar sweetened drinks, suggests a study published by The BMJ.

The researchers say this option is worthy of further research and consideration as part of an integrated approach to tackling obesity. Obesity rates are increasing across the world. In the UK, obesity is estimated to affect around one in every four adults and around one in every five children aged 10 to 11, with higher rates among those living in more deprived areas.

The use of taxes to lower sugar and energy intake have mainly focused on sugar sweetened drinks. But in the UK, high sugar snacks, such as biscuits, cakes, chocolates and sweets make up more free sugar and energy intake than sugary drinks.

Reducing purchases of high sugar snacks could make great impact on population health

Reducing purchases of high sugar snacks therefore has the potential to make a greater impact on population health than reducing the purchase of sugary drinks. To explore this in more detail, researchers used economic modelling to assess the impact of a 20% price increase on high sugar snack foods in the UK. 

Modelling was based on food purchase data for 36,324 UK households and National Diet and Nutrition Survey data for 2,544 adults. Results were grouped by household income and body mass index (BMI) to estimate changes in weight and prevalence of obesity over one year.

The results suggest that for all income groups combined, increasing the price of biscuits, cakes, chocolates, and sweets by 20% would reduce annual average energy intake by around 8,900 calories, leading to an average weight loss of 1.3 kg over one year.  In contrast, a similar price increase on sugary drinks would result in an average weight loss of just 203g over one year.

The model also predicts that the impact of the price increase would be largest in low income households with the highest rates of obesity, suggesting that taxing high sugar snacks could help to reduce health inequalities driven by diet related diseases, say the researchers.

Ultimately, tackling obesity and diet related disease “requires close scrutiny of the social determinants of food environments and a systemic, sustained group of initiatives aimed at reducing health inequalities,” they conclude.