The sugar tax has saved thousands of children from having to have their teeth out, according to a new study.
The soft drinks industry levy (SDIL) – or “sugar tax” – is a levy applied to UK-produced or imported soft drinks containing added sugar since April 2018.
The tax has saved more than 5,500 youngsters under the age of 18 from having to go into hospital to have teeth extracted due to tooth decay alone – a decrease of 12 percent, suggests the research.
The largest reductions were in children aged up to nine-years-old, according to the findings published in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health.
Sugar-sweetened drinks account for around 30 percent of the added sugars in the diets of children aged one- to three-years-old and more than half by late adolescence.
In England, nearly nine out of 10 of all tooth extractions in young children are due to decay, resulting in around 60,000 missed school days a year.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks to reduce sugar consumption, which more than 50 countries have implemented.
In March 2016, the UK government announced the “sugar tax” – which aimed to reduce sugar intake by encouraging drinks manufacturers to reformulate their products. The levy was implemented in April 2018.
While the relationship between sugar-sweetened drinks and tooth decay is well established, until now no studies have used real-world data to examine the relationship between the levy and dental health.
The research team analyzed hospital admissions data for tooth extractions due to tooth decay in youngsters aged up to 18-years-old in England from January 2014 to February 2020, four years before and almost two years after the tax was introduced.
They studied trends overall as well as broken down by neighborhood deprivation and age groups.
Overall, in children aged 18 and under, there was an absolute reduction in hospital admissions of 3.7 per 100,000 population per month compared to if the soft drinks levy had not happened.
That equated to a relative reduction of 12 percent compared to if the levy was not introduced, according to the findings.
Based on a population of nearly 13 million children in England in 2020, the research team estimated that the reduction avoided 5,638 admissions for tooth decay.
Decreases in hospital admissions were greatest in younger children aged up to four-years-old and five- to nine-year-olds, with absolute reductions of 6.5 and 3.3 per 100,000 respectively.
Study first author Dr. Nina Rogers, of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge University, said: “This is an important finding given that children aged five to nine are the most likely to be admitted to hospital for tooth extractions under general anesthesia.”
No significant changes in admission rates for tooth decay were seen in 10 to 14-year-olds and 15 to 18-year-olds.
However, reductions in hospital admissions were seen in children living in most areas regardless of deprivation.
The researchers concluded that their study “provides evidence of possible benefits to children’s health from the UK soft drinks industry levy beyond obesity which it was initially developed to address.”
Co-author Professor David Conway, of Glasgow University, said: “Tooth extractions under general anesthesia is among the most common reasons for children to be admitted to hospital across the UK.
“This study shows that ambitious public health policies such as a tax on sugary drinks can impact on improving child oral health.”
Professor Sumantra Ray, executive director of the NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health, said: “We welcome the publication of this research which attempts to draw the links between policy-level changes and the impact on early life oral/dental health outcomes which, if untoward, would produce a significant onward burden on dental services through the life course.”
He added: “The economic effects of this are more pronounced given current challenges in the provision of far-reaching dental health coverage both in countries with nationalized healthcare systems as well as others.
“Whilst there are methodological limitations in this study in regard to causal inference, this paper provides the basis for the design of further policy sensitive research investigating these relationships in a manner that clearly links cause and effect.”
The researchers said other national interventions – such as the sugar reduction program and compulsory nutrition labels alongside the levy – may also have raised public awareness of sugar consumption and influenced buying habits.
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