This year so far has seen increased media focus on the issue of soft drinks consumption in the UK, particularly among young people. First Sustain produced a report1 calling for a 20p per litre sugary drinks duty, which they claim would raise £1 billion a year to contribute towards health promoting initiatives for children. The background for the report was the increasing health problems that high intake of sugary drinks are seen as contributing towards, and a concern about increasing NHS costs and the future health of children. Then the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges issued a report2 into the UK obesity crisis which also recommended a 20% increase in tax on sugar sweetened soft-drinks. The reports and their recommendations generated much interest in the British press, and the Guardian3 reported on the response of the British Soft Drinks Association whose director general, Gavin Partington, claimed that "Over the last 10 years, the consumption of soft drinks containing added sugar has fallen by 9% while the incidence of obesity has increased by 15%” (The Guardian, 29 January 2013). However, the British Soft Drinks Association’s annual report into soft drinks consumption in Britain paints a slightly different picture. Reports from 2007 – 20124,5 show that while the consumption of soft drinks that are classed as ‘regular’ (i.e., sugar-added) have reduced as a proportion of the total, overall consumption has increased. Consumption of carbonated drinks and still & juice drinks (not pure fruit juice) went up in the UK from 2006-2011, while consumption of dilutables (e.g. squashes) decreased somewhat. The real change in that time though is in the consumption of energy drinks, which went up from 6.7 l/person in 2006 to 10.6 l/person in 2011 – an increase of 58%.4,5
These figures relate to the population overall and include the whole of the UK. For young people in England, the HBSC data show a dramatic increase in consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks from 2006 to 2010; in some age groups the proportion who report drinking such drinks every day has more than doubled over that time period. 6,7 In 2006, around 20% of girls and between 20-28% of boys in England said they drank sugary soft drinks every day – in 2010 this had increased to between 32-39% of girls and around 40% of boys. Further, whereas England ranked 29th (26th for 11 year olds) for drinking such drinks every day in 2006, in 2010 they were placed first (2nd among 15 year olds) among 39 countries. Meanwhile, both Scotland and Wales reported modest decreases in daily soft drinks consumption for young people between 2006 and 2010.
During a recent event with the young people’s advisory group for HBSC England, we asked a group of young people aged between 13 and 18 why they thought soft drinks consumption was so high among English adolescents. They cited the very prominent Red Bull adverts of a few years ago as one explanation for the dramatic increase in energy drinks in particular, and some claimed that an energy drink might even serve as a meal replacement because it fills you up and, quite clearly, “contains energy”.
A recent study in the US8 used focus groups to investigate the factors that are important for young people when choosing beverages. Not surprisingly, taste was rated as most important (by 93%) while only 30% said they considered calorie content. Those students who reported drinking diet drinks primarily said they did so for taste rather than health concerns which were of little interest, and which they didn’t consider relevant to themselves because of their age. The second most important consideration when choosing beverages in that study was reported to be price, indicating that the price hikes suggested by Sustain and the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges may have an impact on soft drink intake in young people. The study also found limited awareness among the young people in their focus groups with regards to daily energy requirement, meaning that nutritional labels had little meaning to them. When we discussed soft drinks consumption with our research advisory group, some students felt that labelling for soft drinks in the UK were misleading by, for example, only providing calorie content for half a regular bottle of soft drink – as one student put it, “who drinks half a bottle?”.
The HBSC data shows that far from falling, sugary drinks consumption has drastically increased among young people in England over the last few years. What we need to understand now is why this increase is contained to just one country in Great Britain, and why England has not seen the decreases in consumption experienced by Wales and Scotland. If current trends are to be reversed, these issues need to be explored.
1. Fitzpatrick, I. (2013) A children’s future fund: How food duties could provide the money to protect children’s health and the world they grow up in. Sustain; London
2. Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (2013) Measuring up: The medical profession’s prescription for the nation’s obesity crisis. Academy of Medical Royal Colleges
3. The Guardian (29 January 2013) Tax sugary drinks to boost child health, says report. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jan/29/tax-sugary-drinks-child-health
4. British Soft Drinks Association (2007) The 2007 soft drinks’ report. British Soft Drinks Association; London
5. British Soft Drinks Association (2012) Long-term commitment for long-term success: The 2012 soft drinks’ report. British Soft Drinks Association; London
6. Currie, C. et al. (2008) Inequalities in young people’s health. Health behaviour in school-aged children international report from the 2005/2006 survey. Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit, University of Edinburgh
7. Currie, C. et al. (2012) Social determinants of health and well-being among young people. Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Study: International report from the 2009/ 2010 survey. World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe
8. Block, J.P., Gillman, M.W., Linakis, S.K.,and Goldman, R.E. (2013) “If It Tastes Good, I’m Drinking It”: Qualitative Study of Beverage Consumption Among College Students. Journal of Adolescent Health, Early Online Access: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1054139X12007975