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A dentist’s view on a sugar tax

In July of 2015, the British Medical Association (BMA) urged Downing Street to require the food and drink industry to pay a 20% tax on sugary drinks like sodas, claiming that the excess sugar costs the National Health Service (NHS) more than £6 billion annually, as well as 70,000 lives. The BMA contends that the poor dietary habits which include soft drinks and sugar-laden juices have contributed to serious health issues, as well as rapidly soaring dental problems among youth.

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Sugar, obesity, and dental problems

In the UK, one out of every four adults is considered obese, and one out of every three children is classified as obese or significantly overweight by the time they even reach primary school. This is an increase of epic proportions, and holds the potential for crippling medical and dental costs in the future, because the numbers of people affected are growing so rapidly and so enormously.

The team from the BMA which compiled the report issued to Downing Street was led by Professor Sheila Hollins, who asserts that “If a tax of at least 20 percent is introduced, it could reduce the prevalence of obesity in the UK by around 180,000 people. We know from experiences in other countries that taxation on unhealthy food and drinks can improve health outcomes, and the strongest evidence of effectiveness is for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Dean of the Royal College of Surgeons Dental Faculty, Nigel Hunt, goes even further and claims that sugary drinks should carry warnings on their packages similar to those of cigarettes, which highlight the dangers and health risks associated with regular consumption. Some drastic action is needed, asserts Action on Sugar campaign researcher Kawther Hashem, to counter-act the aggressive marketing from soft drink firms which target children and entice them to drink fizzy, sugar-rich drinks that literally rot their teeth.

Further BMA recommendations

The BMA further recommends that grocery stores do away with ‘guilt lanes’ which prominently feature sugary soft drinks and candies at checkout lanes, where children seize on them and prevail upon parents to include them among purchases. “Regulations should be developed that prohibit retailers from displaying unhealthy food and drink products at checkouts and in queuing areas, and the use of schemes that require retail staff to promote unhealthy food and drink products at checkouts.”

Sugar intake

Current sugar intake for most adults in the UK is estimated at about 14.5 teaspoons per day, with teenagers’ intakes estimated at about 19 teaspoons daily. The World Health Organization (WHO) has studied the matter, and its recommendation calls for no more than 6 teaspoons per day for adults and all other groups. However, the newest health study available on sugar intake suggests strongly that even lower levels than the WHO recommendation – no more than 4 teaspoons daily – are needed to reverse the trends of tooth decay.

In a paper issued by Professor Phillip James, of the London School of Hygience and Tropical Medicine, it is claimed that “Previous analyses based on children have misled public health analyses on sugar. The much greater adult burden of dental caries highlights the need for very low sugar intakes throughout life, e.g. 2-3 per cent energy intake, whether or not fluoride intake is optimum.”

Katharine Jenner, Director of the Action on Sugar campaign, completely agrees. “Added sugars are completely unnecessary in our diets and are strongly linked to dental decay as well as to obesity and Type II Diabetes.

The dentist’s perspective

From the foregoing, it would seem that the dentist’s perspective on the issue of a sugar tax in the UK is solidly in the affirmative. Having witnessed an alarming increase in tooth decay attributable to sugary foods and drinks in the last several decades, UK dentists have become personally aware of the end result of the damage done by so much sugar in the diet. The tax on sugar in soda which is being championed as a boon to health in the UK, would then be used to subsidize the sale of more fruits and vegetables – which just may have the pleasant effect of taking matters in the opposite direction.