In an effort to prevent and reduce the prevalence rate of people with obesity and diabetes, South Africa implemented a sugar-content-based tax called the Health Promotion Levy in April 2018, one of the first sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) taxes to be based on each gram of sugar (beyond 4 g/100 ml). This before-and-after study estimated changes in taxed and untaxed beverage intake 1 year after the tax, examining separately, to our knowledge for the first time, the role of reformulation distinct from behavioral changes in SSB intake.
We collected single-day 24-hour dietary recalls from repeat cross-sectional surveys of adults aged 18–39 years in Langa, South Africa. Participants were recruited in February–March 2018 (pre-tax, n = 2,459) and February–March 2019 (post-tax, n = 2,489) using door-to-door sampling. We developed time-specific food composition tables (FCTs) for South African beverages before and after the tax, linked with the diet recalls. By linking pre-tax FCTs only to dietary intake data collected in the pre-tax and post-tax periods, we calculated changes in beverage intake due to behavioral change, assuming no reformulation. Next, we repeated the analysis using an updated FCT in the post-tax period to capture the marginal effect of reformulation. We estimated beverage intake using a 2-part model that takes into consideration the biases in using ordinary least squares or other continuous variable approaches with many individuals with zero intake. First, a probit model was used to estimate the probability of consuming the specific beverage category. Then, conditional on a positive outcome, a generalized linear model with a log-link was used to estimate the continuous amount of beverage consumed. Among taxed beverages, sugar intake decreased significantly ( p < 0.0001) from 28.8 g/capita/day (95% CI 27.3–30.4) pre-tax to 19.8 (95% CI 18.5–21.1) post-tax. Energy intake decreased ( p < 0.0001) from 121 kcal/capita/day (95% CI 114–127) pre-tax to 82 (95% CI 76–87) post-tax. Volume intake decreased ( p < 0.0001) from 315 ml/capita/day (95% CI 297–332) pre-tax to 198 (95% CI 185–211) post-tax. Among untaxed beverages, sugar intake increased ( p < 0.0001) by 5.3 g/capita/day (95% CI 3.7 to 6.9), and energy intake increased ( p < 0.0001) by 29 kcal/capita/day (95% CI 19 to 39). Among total beverages, sugar intake decreased significantly ( p = 0.004) by 3.7 (95% CI −6.2 to −1.2) g/capita/day. Behavioral change accounted for reductions of 24% in energy, 22% in sugar, and 23% in volume, while reformulation accounted for additional reductions of 8% in energy, 9% in sugar, and 14% in volume from taxed beverages. The key limitations of this study are an inability to make causal claims due to repeat cross-sectional data collection, and that the magnitude of reduction in taxed beverage intake may not be generalizable to higher income populations.
Using a large sample of a high-consuming, low-income population, we found large reductions in taxed beverage intake, separating the components of behavioral change from reformulation. This reduction was partially compensated by an increase in sugar and energy from untaxed beverages. Because policies such as taxes can incentivize reformulation, our use of an up-to-date FCT that reflects a rapidly changing food supply is novel and important for evaluating policy effects on intake.
Rina Swart and co-authors use real world data to demonstrate that sugar-sweetened beverage tax was associated with reduced sugary drink intake in a low-income population within a middle-income country.
In 2018, South Africa became the first sub-Saharan African country to implement a sugary beverage tax to reduce consumption of added sugars.
Sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) taxes have been shown to reduce purchases, but few studies have included dietary intake, and they are focused in higher income countries like the United States. To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the effects of an SSB tax using detailed 24-hour dietary recall data focused on a low-income population from the Global South.
To our knowledge, this is the first study to evaluate real-world changes from an SSB tax policy by empirically quantifying how much of the overall change in sugar intake from taxed beverages came from consumers’ behavioral changes versus reformulation of beverages.
Using dietary intake data collected from a low-income South African township before and after the SSB tax was implemented, we examined changes in sugar, calorie, and volume intake from taxed and untaxed beverages.
We used detailed brand-product-specific nutrition facts panel data collected at baseline and a year after tax implementation to allow us to examine both behavioral change and reformulation.
We found the intake of sugar, calories, and volume of taxed beverages decreased by 9.0 g (31%), 39 kcal (33%), and 117 ml (37%) per capita per day, respectively. The intake of sugar, calories, and volume of untaxed beverages increased by 5.3 g (36%), 30 kcal (29%), and 339 ml (58%) per capita per day, respectively. Water accounted for the majority (52%) of the pre–post difference in volume of untaxed beverage intake.
Of the 9.0 g per capita per day (31%) total reduction in sugar from taxed beverages, 6.4 g per capita per day (22%) was due to behavioral differences. When accounting for reformulation, there was an additional 2.6 g per capita per day (9%) reduction in the post-tax period.
SSB taxes were associated with reduced sugary drink intake in a low-income population within a middle-income country.
We quantified the observed changes in beverage intake due to reformulation and behavior change, thereby examining the 2 primary goals of an SSB tax based on sugar concentration.
Future research will be needed to understand how responses to sugar-based beverage taxes may vary by socioeconomic status.