Banning the Promotion of Soft Drinks Could be More Effective Than a Sugar Tax

Jerri-Lynn here. This post examines how banning sales promotions of soft drinks could be more effective than imposing a sugar tax as a means to get people to cut back on their consumption.

By Wisdom Dogbe, Research Fellow, University of Aberdeen, and Cesar Revoredo-Giha
Senior Economist and Team Leader of Food Marketing Research, Scotland’s Rural College.
Originally published at The Conversation

Obesity is one of the most serious health problems facing the UK, where around 65% of adults are either obese or overweight. This has implications. In 2006/2007, obesity cost the NHS £5.1 billion. That means we are likely to pay more taxes in the future to keep the NHS functioning unless something is done. Obesity also predisposes people to a risk of several serious health issues, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers, depression and anxiety.

The consumption of high sugar products such as soft drinks are a major cause of obesity and diabetes. In April 2018, the UK government introduced a soft drinks levy on sugar-sweetened beverages in an effort to reduce the amount of sugar people consumed and control the situation.

The levy was imposed on industries which manufactured or imported sweetened beverages in three tiers: drinks with a sugar content of less than 5g/100ml attracted no tax; drinks with sugar content 5-8g/100ml attracted the basic level tax of 18p/litre, and those containing more than 8g/100ml attracted a higher tax level of 24p/litre.

In an attempt to assess the effectiveness of the policy, researchers from the University of Cambridge concluded that two years after the implementation of the policy, though the sugar content of soft drinks was reduced by 30g per household per week, the volume of soft drinks purchased has remained the same.

This troubled us so we conducted the first study comparing the effectiveness of the soft drinks levy to proposed mandatory restrictions on soft-drinks promotions.

Sales promotions are marketing strategies used by retailers to lure consumers to buy their products. These include temporary price reductions, Buy One Get One Free (BOGOF), buy Y for £X, coupons, and so on. Unfortunately, more unhealthy foods – those high in fat, salt and sugar – are promoted than healthy ones. While the overall aim is to boost sales, consumers take advantage of promotions for the thrill – the excitement of getting a bargain. This leads to impulse buying, stockpiling and over-consumption.

Finding the Right Strategy

In June 2018, the UK government announced its intention to ban promotions of products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) by location and price through legislation. It then began a consultation on the plans between January 12 and April 6, 2019.

The consultation received 807 responses from individuals, businesses and organisations. Around 60% of respondents were in favour of the government’s proposal to restrict HFSS promotions. Although the study was carried out to encourage the government to implement the policy as quickly as possible, it will only come into force in April 2022.

In our study, we looked at the spending of 2,568 households in Scotland and compared the impact of both policies on different groups of consumers according to income levels, location, life stage and Scottish index of multiple deprivation. Those in more deprived areas were more likely to continue to buy high sugar drinks despite the tax.

We also predicted how consumers would react to a restriction on the promotion of sweetened drinks based on their spending patterns. Our results suggest that when the government goes ahead with this policy in April, the annual quantity of drinks purchases could reduce by 35.8% compared to 1.4% by the soft drinks levy. That’s around 25 times effective more than the soft drinks tax.

Studies assessing its impact conclude that the sugar tax policy is very effective. But promotions are a major driver of retail purchases and tend to be heavily directed towards less healthy options. The results from our study suggest that banning promotions on soft drinks will have more success in cutting down the consumption of sugary drinks.

This would be good news for the government, the NHS and the health of consumers. The reduction in sugar intake could help to tackle diabetes, the most expensive burden on the NHS, reduce obesity and increase life expectancy across the UK. And in turn the government could save on the amount it contributes towards the treatment of obesity and weight-related diseases.

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  1. jackiebass63

    You won’t see it happening. Our economy is based on consumption. Advertising promotes consumption.

    1. Michael Ismoe

      You need soft drinks to wash down all those prescription medications that you don’t need. Really? A pill for “restless leg syndrome.”

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Unfortunately, as with alcohol, the soft drinks companies are very good at using sponsorship to get a lot of sports bodies ‘onside’ with them in opposing restrictions on marketing. If you banned all soft drink marketing it would have a huge impact on a wide range of sports, and not just top level professional sports. Various ‘sports’ drinks have made themselves a key part of lots of youth sport. But most of these are little more than cheap soda under another guise. Its amazing the amount of young men (in particular) who think that constantly guzzling a sports drink somehow helps them keep fit.

    1. jonst

      why don’t you push for a ban of sports too. Why stop with soda. Think of all those injuries you’ll be preventing. Along with limits on ‘toxic masculinity’ sports encourage. after all, you know what is best for us all.

      1. LowellHighlander

        I think the article was referring to the efficacy of bans on promoting soda – not on soda itself. There’s a difference. For instance, I believe TV programs in the U.S. have stopped showing people smoking cigarettes. Good. Or, the British (or Scottish) government could show advertisements with young, stylish – and dare I say it, beautiful – people eating fruits and [preferably vegan] salads to imply that that’s what trendy people do. Tacky? Perhaps – but the NHS needs all the relief it can get. And the article does a good job of showing the burden on the NHS because of the obesity epidemic.

    2. Arizona Slim

      For some strange reason, I’m reminded of that Virginia Slims tennis tournament. One of the many ways that the tobacco industry used to circumvent the ban on TV advertising.

    3. The Historian

      A ban on marketing might work. It seemed to work with cigarette sales. However, you are right – it isn’t just sodas, it is all those other sugary drinks too. Remember Kool-Aid?

      And I agree with you, it’ll never get past our powers that be – can you imagine the hit to spectator sports if all that ad money went away? Not that that would be a bad thing. It would be nice to see people engaging in sports for fun and health instead of watching young people use up their bodies simply to enrich a certain segment of society.

        1. marieann

          Yes the sugar was added, I always mixed a little less than called for and added apple juice to the water…..what they didn’t know…was good for them (my 2 sons)

  3. JohnA

    Footballer Cristiano Ronaldo caused a stir at a soccer tournament press conference last year when he pushed the array of sugary sponsored soft drinks away from the table and picked up a bottle of water and recommended drinking that instead. Afterwards the organisers went into damage limitation mode to keep the sponsors onside.

    Time to end sponsorship by sugared fizz drinks of anything along with advertising.

  4. Wukchumni

    I noticed the country putting on a lot of weight with the introduction of all-you-can-drink help yourself soda beverage bars in fast food eateries about 40 years ago, not to mention free refills of soda often offered @ sit-down restaurants.

    1. MK

      This! I’ve noticed some places are moving the self-serve soda machines from the front counter and placing them behind, forcing people to queue up and ask for more. This is likely to help the bottom line rather than customer health.

  5. Henry Moon Pie

    Does anyone want to argue that advertising produces a net social good in WEIRD countries?

    The Burger Court was pretty clever in the cases they took to establish 1st Amendment protections for commercial speech, but the reality is that advertising provides consumers with precious little information while applying every manipulative trick in an ever-expanding book.

    Ban advertising beyond price and features of products, and define “features” very narrowly. That would rid us of get-in-your-brain social media overnight along with all the pushing of fast foods, processed foods and absurd overconsumption of everything from travel to clothing.

    If we don’t rapidly curb consumption of that top 10% of the world’s rich contributing 50% of carbon emissions, we’re going to find that our deeming advertising as sacred will bring us to a world with no advertising and very little consumption. The poor little darlings just don’t have the willpower to resist on their own.

  6. hickory

    I generally support the focus on reducing sugar. However, some fats are very healthy and some very unhealthy. A high-fat diet isn’t necessarily bad for you, and eating fat doesn’t make you fat – generally the opposite is true!

  7. viscaelpaviscaelvi

    The question is: Why stop at soft drinks?
    One of my favourite conversation stirrers is the proposal to ban all advertising. More the discussion about the benefits that it would bring, the best thing of it all is the expression of astonishment that shows on people’s faces the moment they realize what I am ACTUALLY saying. A mindset not far from that described by the observation that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.

    1. Code Name D

      The question is: Why stop at soft drinks?

      Easy. It’s outside the scope of conversation.

      Soft Drinks are generating real problems. An advertising ban (I do not think its a bad thing BTW) is just one attempt to address these problems. So the notion that “why stop there” is really just an attempt to derail the conversation.

      But I will add that even if you could implement an advertising ban (TPTB will not have it.) The lessons from cigarette bans would suggest that simply getting rid of advertising is not enough. For starters, I noticed that I am falling off the soda wagon too, mostly because it is so darn hard to avoid. I note that even HIGH END restaurants serve sodas. All though non-soda alternatives are becoming more common. Favored Tea is becoming more common, and has a lot less sugar. But with fas food and most establishments, soda is your only option on the menu – apart from water. Mandating some low-sugar alternatives would surely help.

  8. TimH

    The soft drinks levy was just another tax. Gov doesn’t care about sugar consumption, just like it doesn’t care about covid deaths.

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