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Case study: Sugar-coating a Tax

Turning a niche public health policy into a political win

Published: 13 Jan 2019

Sugar coating a tax

Client: Obesity Health Alliance members and Jamie Oliver

Agency: Sustain’s Children’s Food Campaign

Campaign: Sugar-coating a Tax

Timescale: Three years

A quick look

Shockingly, a third of English children are overweight or obese. Teenagers consume three times more sugar than recommended – and sugary drinks are the biggest culprits. Sustain’s Children’s Food Campaign, Obesity Health Alliance members and Jamie Oliver worked together to turn a niche public health policy – a tax on sugary drinks – into a political win. This is a landmark policy which is set to improve children’s health and pave the way for further population health measures.


A can of cola contains a whopping seven teaspoons of sugar – more than a child’s daily upper limit. Yet securing meaningful regulation on sugar has
been an incredible challenge for health campaigners. Back in 2015, the demand for a sugary drinks tax was undeniably gathering momentum but Westminster wasn’t budging.

Following a government U-turn, the soft drinks levy was finally announced in 2016, but the battle was far from over. The big guns of the soft drinks industry launched a sustained and powerful effort to derail the policy. The situation was already highly charged, but the 2017 snap election raised tensions even further, raising doubt about whether the policy could become law before a potential change of government.


The public health community came together, with a coalition led by Children’s Food Campaign (CFC), Jamie Oliver and the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) to present a united voice, emphasising the same key message – a sugar tax is needed, wanted and easy to implement. Different organisations played to their own strengths: researchers and medical organisations provided solid health evidence, while campaigners including Jamie Oliver and the CFC built popular support and held politicians to account for failing to act.

Tactics included parliamentary briefings and drop-in events, a letter to the Prime Minister signed by 20 MPs and a steady drumbeat of research-based media stories, all making the case for the tax. The groups worked together to present a united front by rebutting industry scare stories with evidence-based messages. The strength of the coalition was shown during a critical few days when all groups involved launched a co-ordinated lobbying effort to ensure the tax was included in a pre-election skeleton finance bill.


By March 2016 public support for the policy had risen to 56% (from 45%), increasing again to 60% by the end of the year. This proved invaluable in reassuring politicians that the tax had strong public support. By May 2017 64% of MPs agreed a levy is necessary to improve children’s health.

At the critical point, when the tax had to be included in a skeleton pre-election bill, the Shadow Health Secretary and Shadow Finance Secretary both supported the levy and helped ensure it was prioritised for inclusion in the Bill. In addition, in January 2018 Public Health Minister Steve Brine announced nearly 50% of the SSB market had reduced sugar from their products to avoid the levy, showing the policy had a positive effect on public health even before it came into force in Spring 2018.

Client verdict

Jamie Oliver MBE, chef and campaigner, said: “It was after the Winter Olympics and World Cup in 2014 that sugar began to feel like this huge elephant in the room. Both those events had massive, global partnerships and sponsorships from products packed with sugar. Then, in 2015, the SACN report showed that sugary drinks were the single largest source of sugar in our kids’ diets. For me, this marked the major trigger point for change. And we’ve come so far since then! Yes, childhood obesity is still an incredibly difficult challenge, but we’ve proved that by getting together across the industry we can start to shift the dial. We got the public to sit up and listen, we got the sugary drinks levy through, we’ve secured and ring-fenced levy funds for healthy initiatives such as breakfast clubs and sports facilities, and we’ve protected the tax from industry backlash. I’m not saying our work here is done, but I think we can allow ourselves a moment to reflect on and celebrate the achievements of the last three years.”

Mark Lloyd, Branch Head: Soft Drinks Levy & Gambling Taxes, Treasury, said: “The work that the OHA put into coordinating supportive messages around the SDIL and aligned, detailed consultation submissions was extremely valuable. At HMT we were pleased with how the SDIL debate played out – thanks in no small part to the output of the OHA and its members.”

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