23rd February 2018, Volume 131 Number 1470

Frank Houghton, Sharon Houghton

In many ways, Dr Leo Varakar does not fit the traditional image of an Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister). In a country usually portrayed as being fervently Catholic, parochial and traditional, he defies many expectations as the first openly gay Irish Prime Minister and son of an Indian immigrant.1 Similarly, his social policy actions are not those that one would typically expect of a political party (Fine Gael) that stands to the right of centre in the political ideological spectrum.2

From a health perspective, the recent Irish government budget for 2018 includes a number of positive steps. These include an additional 1,800 extra frontline health service staff, the development of more social housing, an increase of 50 cents tax on each packet of 20 cigarettes, modest anti-poverty measures such as rises in social welfare benefits (five euros per week), reductions in medication prescription charges and an increase in tax (VAT) on using sun beds.3

However, perhaps the most significant development in his recent budget in relation to health was the introduction of a sugar tax on drinks.3 Although there is a long history of such taxes in several Scandinavian countries (eg, Norway),4 Ireland joins a growing number of countries and localities implementing such bans including Mexico, France, Hungary and Berkeley (California, US).5

The introduction of a sugar tax is hardly surprising given Ireland’s obesity epidemic6,7 and rising rates of type 2 diabetes.8 As a physician and former Minister for Health, the new Prime Minister’s health orientation is perhaps to be expected. It must be acknowledged that after a focus lasting decades on the adverse health impact of fat, this new health concentration on sugar may be seen as righting an imbalance that resulted from suspect research funded by the sugar industry.9,10 It should perhaps also be acknowledged that, given the strength of the farming lobby in Ireland, the decision to introduce this tax was no doubt made easier thanks to European Union restructuring of the agriculture sector, which has meant that Ireland no longer has a sugar beet farming and processing industry.11

What is notable about Ireland’s new sugar tax is that, rather than being a perfunctory step in the right direction, it is a substantive tax on sugary drink that will undoubtedly have a positive impact.12 The new tax will be 30 cents per litre on drinks with more than 8g of added sugar per 100ml, and 20 cents per litre on drinks with between 5g and 8g of sugar added per 100 ml.

The imposition of a sugar tax on drinks may be supported by other moves in the confectionary industry that may have the unintended consequence of also curtailing the consumption of high calorie sweets, and hence potentially reducing obesity. In an effort to maintain profits without increasing price, it has recently been noted that numerous manufacturers are reducing the size of chocolate bars (termed “shrinkflation”). Thus consumers are often paying the same price and yet receiving less calories.13

Ideally, taxes resulting from Ireland’s new Sugar Tax should be ring-fenced to provide health and health promotion initiatives focused on tackling the obesity epidemic. However, even in the absence of such a commitment from Government, this new and substantive Population Health intervention is to be applauded. Given the extent of New Zealand’s obesity epidemic, New Zealand should seriously consider following suit.

Author Information

Frank Houghton, Director HEALR Research Group, Limerick Institute of Technology, Limerick, Ireland; Sharon Houghton, Lecturer, Department of Psychology, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland.

Correspondence

Dr Frank Houghton, Director HEALR Research Group, Limerick Institute of Technology, Limerick, Ireland.

Correspondence Email

frank.houghton@lit.ie

Competing Interests

Nil.

References

  1. Bardon S. Leo Varadkar: The man who evolved into a Taoiseach. The Irish Times. 2017 June 2. 
  2. Gallagher M. Political parties in the Republic of Ireland. Manchester: Manchester University Press; 1985.
  3. Kelly F, Carroll S. Budget 2018 main points: everything you need to know. The Irish Times. Oct 10.
  4. Hillard M. Global examples feed arguments for and against sugar tax. The Irish Times. 2016 Mar 18. 
  5. Colchero MA, Molina M, Guerrero-López CM. After Mexico Implemented a Tax, Purchases of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Decreased and Water Increased: Difference by Place of Residence, Household Composition, and Income Level. J Nutr. 2017; 147(8):1552–1557. 
  6. Haug E, Rasmussen M, Samdal S, Iannotti R, Kelly C, Borraccino A, et al. Overweight in school-aged children and its relationship with demographic and lifestyle factors: Results from the WHO-Collaborative Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Study. Int J Public Health. 2009; 54(Suppl 2):167–179.
  7. Doherty E, Dee A, Ciaran O’Neill C. Estimating the Amount of Overweight and Obesity Related Health-Care Use in the Republic of Ireland Using SLÁN Data. The Economic and Social Review 2012; 43(2):227–250.
  8. Tracey ML, Gilmartin M, O’Neill K, Fitzgerald AP, McHugh SM, Buckley CM, Canavan RJ, Kearney PM. Epidemiology of diabetes and complications among adults in the Republic of Ireland 1998–2015: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health. 2016; 16:132.
  9. Kearns CE, Schmidt LA, Glantz SA. Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research- A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. JAMA Intern Med. 2016; 176(11):1680–1685. 
  10. O’Connor A. How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat. The New York Times. 2016 Sept 12. 
  11. Healy A. Greencore head says there will never be an Irish sugar industry again. The Irish Times. 2013 May 29.
  12. The Economist. Taxing sugary drinks- Stopping slurping. 2015 Nov 26.
  13. Pope C. Shrinkflation: when products get smaller but the prices don’t. The Irish Times 2015 Apr 27.