Drinks manufacturers have changed product sizes to avoid sugar tax, report finds

By Mark Donlon

The latest report from food safety watchdog Safefood has revealed that manufacturers have reduced sugar content in their energy drinks since the introduction of the sugar tax, but many have circumvented it by introducing larger serving sizes.

The sugar-sweetened tax came into effect on 1 May 2018 and was aimed at decreasing the level of sugar present in energy drinks on the market in Ireland. In 2015, the average energy drink product on the market contained 31g of sugar per serving – equating to 10g per 100ml. With the introduction of the tax, any product containing over 8g of sugar per 100ml would be taxable at 30 cent per litre, and any product containing between 5g and 8g of sugar taxable at 20 cent per litre.

At first look, progress in this department seems doubtless. This is because data from the 2019 survey four years on shows that the mean sugar content of energy drinks on the Irish market dropped to 22.6g per serving – almost two level teaspoons of sugar less than the 2015 average, and a sugar content per 100ml of 6g – meaning a large proportion fall into the lower tax bracket.

Further to this, the report also displays that while drinks companies have showed a general adherence to the new rules, loopholes have been found and jumped through.

In 2019, Safefood found there to be 16 energy drink products available on the market which come in 500ml servings – this figure represented a doubling of 500ml servings when compared to the eight available in 2015. It would appear then that companies have attempted to appease customers, in the face of the tax, by putting a bigger emphasis on the availability of larger, more sugary drinks.

The energy drinks market has still expanded in size despite the introduction of the tax. The volume of drinks sold off-trade in Ireland has grown from its 2015 figure of 25.8 million litres to a more recent increase up to 26.7 million litres in 2018, representing a 3.4% growth.

The number of products on the market has also increased, with 42 products available in 2019 compared to 39 in 2015. Of the 42 products available in 2019, 15 are diet or sugar free products – only nine of the 39 available in 2015 were of this nature.

Minister for Health Simon Harris welcomed the general changes made by some companies, but bemoaned the avoidance of the rules of some major players in the market:

Minister Harris said: “I welcome the progress in reformulation by manufacturing since the introduction of the Sugar Sweetened Drinks Tax and it is encouraging to see a significant reduction in sugar content in many products.

“However, it is disappointing that some of these manufacturers have not responded appropriately. Many of these products are still high in sugar and I strongly urge retailers and manufacturers to consider further measures to reduce the sugar content of their products. I am also very concerned at the trend in increasing container sizes.”

Of the three leading manufacturers of energy drinks, only one reduced their sugar content between 2015 and 2019.

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