Curbing Ireland’s Sweet Tooth

Siobhán Mitchell graduated with an M.S. in Global Health from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. She was also a 2021-2022 Global Irish Studies Fellow.  

Sugar and its consumption provoke a variety of emotions based on who is consuming it or in what form it is consumed. It is the focus of guilt, pleasure, and craving, and is perhaps best described as the bane of our existence and the object of our desires. Whatever our individual relationship with sugar, the substance is everywhere around us, and there has been an increasing interest in recent years in regulating it to curb rising rates of obesity and noncommunicable disease. But how can regulators steer a population away from sugar, and is it fair to do so? One approach is that which has been taken in the Republic of Ireland–a tax on manufacturers of sugary soft drinks (SSDs) that will potentially have a positive impact on both public health and the environment.

The global history of the sugar industry is a history of exploitation. Sugar cane was a labor-intensive crop during pre-industrialized times, requiring a massive input of human effort to plant, harvest, and refine. Through the exploitation of enslaved people, sugar became a multi-million-dollar enterprise, and was of critical importance in the transatlantic trade triangle. The abuses suffered by enslaved people in the name of sugar production cannot be understated, as it was slave labor alone that allowed for the jumpstart of the high-demand industry we know today

A vintage-looking ad depicting a bowl of strawberries next to a white paper bag of sugar. It reads "A taste of the goodness we're rich in"
An advertisement from the 1970s show the Irish consumer brand Siúcra advertising their product. Image from IFI Archive.

Ireland, under British rule during the 18th and 19th century, played an important role in sugar trade through facilitating the passage of American goods to Britain. This entangled Ireland in the global economy, while also building the importance of sugar refinement in the Irish economy during the period. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the once important American sugar was replaced by the introduction of the sugar beet. This sugar alternative began to be cultivated in the 1840s, continuing into the 20th century when beet became an important cash crop for the newly established state. Despite its prior importance, the sugar industry in Ireland has now ceased thanks to World Trade Organization and EU efforts to reduce sugar production in the region with the intention of ensuring progress toward equity for less economically developed countries. 

No matter where or how it is produced, the insatiable appetite for sugar is indisputable on a global scale, and the health consequences are becoming increasingly more alarming. According to the WHO, “sugars” is an overarching term referring to intrinsic sugars in the structure of fruits/vegetables, sugars from milk, and free sugars. Free sugars are those added to food and beverages in addition to sugars found in honey, syrups, and fruit juice. The association between free sugars, obesity, and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs include cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and cancer), along with the significant social costs that come with populations burdened by high prevalence of NCDs, led to the creation of the guideline titled Sugars Intake for Adults in Children by the World Health Organization in 2015. 

The impact of noncommunicable diseases on the Irish population specifically is shown by the fact that circulatory system diseases are the most prominent cause of death for those 65 and over, accounting for 31% of deaths within this age group. Circulatory system diseases, along with cancer, also cause the majority of deaths for all age groups combined. Additionally, the 21st century has seen an uptick in the proportion of Ireland’s population that is considered obese, rising from 18% in 2002 to 26% in 2019, giving it the second highest prevalence of obesity in the EU. 

The heavy consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in Ireland poses significant concerns in relation to the prevalence of NCDs and obesity, and interventions taken by the Irish government are similar to those seen globally. In 2014, the Institute of Public Health reported that over 411 million liters of sugary drinks were purchased in Ireland during the year, averaging consumption at 200 cans per person per year. The most common demographic to drink sugar-sweetened beverages was those aged 15-24, and 36% of those in the age group reported drinking sugar-sweetened drinks on most days. 

A chart with five rows, and five soda cans in each row to show the levels of public approval. The favorite sodas, Lilt, Vanilla Coke, Club C, Diet Coke, and Cadet are on the top row.
A satirical ranking of Irish fizzy drinks by the The Daily (2016). While meant for comedy, the image supports economic evidence on the prominence of Coca-Cola consumption. 

Ireland’s excise tax came into effect on 1 May 2018 and was adapted on 1 January 2019 to include protein and milk fat drinks (with exceptions if drinks had a protein content over 119 milligrams per 100 milliliters). The current scheme charges manufacturers €16.26 per hundred liters of beverage containing 5-8 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters, and €24.39 per hundred liters of drink containing over 8 grams or more per 100 milliliters. Manufacturers are encouraged to decrease sugar content in their drinks to avoid paying a higher tax rate.

The revenue generated for the state is an undeniable benefit, but how much and how it is used is critical to achieving public health goals. The tax generated €16.5 million in its first nine months and €31 million in 2020, with funds flowing into the general exchequer managed by the Department of Finance. Interestingly, the Department of Finance argues against efforts to earmark revenue towards public health outcomes, citing that the goal of the tax is not to generate revenue but to encourage sugar reduction and alter consumer behavior. 

Critics of SSD taxation argue that the taxes limit freedom through paternalistic policies for behaviors that do not harm anyone but the individual consumer. What these critics fail to acknowledge is the burden placed upon social resources and healthcare costs by the negative implications of a population with high rates of noncommunicable disease. Additionally, the average estimate for consumers is approximately 25c added to the cost per liter of soft drinks, which is within what is considered the appropriate 10% increase in the price of SSDs that deters customers without infringing on financial freedom to purchase the product. This being said, Ireland’s policy taxes suppliers, meaning the impact on consumers is not directly controlled by the government nor the tax itself. Instead, it incentivizes suppliers to have lower sugar contents in their drinks to avoid paying higher rates corresponding to the higher sugar levels. Theoretically, this would result in a minimal price hike for consumers and a lower sugar concentration in beverages, satisfying the goal of reducing sugar consumption. 

In regard to actual chronic disease and obesity prevalence outcomes, it will take years for effects of the tax to be represented on a population-wide scale, making it difficult to reach any decisive conclusion on the effectiveness. Additionally, the hold that soda has on Ireland (as shown by Coca-Cola’s ranking as the biggest selling brand in 2021, their 17th year in a row) may take more than this tax to shake.

However, while obesity and NCDs may remain a valid threat to public health despite the implementation of a sugar tax, the high cost of SSD production on environmental resources is yet another concern to consider. As the climate crisis brings environmental issues and population health closer together, it makes sense to ask whether sugar taxation is justified for more than health reasons alone. The estimated 168-309 liters of water required to produce half a liter of regular soft drink is a growing concern, making Ireland’s 411 million liters of SSDs consumed in 2014 more alarming from an environmental standpoint. While we anticipate the results of the current tax and cannot definitively say whether its impact on public health justifies the measure, it is clear that future policies must investigate the impact of SSD consumption on the planet. Policymakers must find ways to incentivize suppliers to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint, in addition to the current scheme’s attempt to reduce sugar.