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Sugar tax can be effective in the Netherlands, challenges remain

20 September 2022
A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) would encourage people to buy them less often. The majority of the Dutch population agrees that such a tax is acceptable, as long as the revenues are used to support public health initiatives. And yet challenges remain if such a tax is to become feasible in the Netherlands. These are the findings of a study by health scientist Michelle Eykelenboom of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Health-related food taxes serve as a financial incentive, directing consumers to make healthier dietary choices. In order to measure what the effects are of a tax on sugary drinks and a tax on other unhealthy foods, Eykelenboom’s study used a virtual 3D supermarket. Approximately 400 Dutch adults participated in this study. Sugar-sweetened beverages were purchased less often when they carried a sugar tax. In addition, a tax on products that are low in nutritional quality – with a Nutri-Score of D or E – can lead to consumers buying more healthier foods, and in total foods with fewer calories. 

Majority in favour of new tax
The majority of Dutch citizens are in favour of an additional tax on SSBs, like soft drinks, provided that the revenues are used for public health programmes. These are the results of a survey of a representative sample of 500 Dutch adults. But not everyone is in favour of such a sugar tax with the revenues invested in public health: one-third of those surveyed said they were against it.

Difficult feasibility challenges
In order to investigate to what degree a sugar tax is feasible in the Netherlands, Eykelenboom interviewed 27 stakeholders in 2019, including healthcare professionals and representatives of political parties and interest groups, in order to find out how they view such a tax. It turned out that, at the time of the interviews, a number of considerable challenges still had to be met in order to make adoption of a tax on drinks with high sugar content feasible in the Netherlands. For example, there is a great deal of disagreement among stakeholders about the effectiveness, suitability, social and economic effects of a sugar tax, an unfavourable political context and a strong lobby against a tax on SSBs. In Eykelenboom’s view, it would help to form a coalition of advocacy groups who support introduction of such a tax.

Overweight and obesity
The prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased all over the world in the last few decades. A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages has been the topic of much discussion in recent years. Reasons supporting a tax on SSBs include strong scientific evidence of a direct causal relation between the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and excess weight gain, while SSBs contain little or no nutritional value.

For further information read the dissertation.