Sugar tax may have reduced dental caries in UK kids

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Sugar tax may have reduced UK paediatric tooth extractions—study

Since April 2018, soft drinks sold in the UK with 5–8 g of sugar added have an additional tax of £0.18 per litre, and those containing more than 8 g carry an additional tax of £0.24 per litre. (Image: urbans/Shutterstock)

CAMBRIDGE, UK: Dental caries is the primary cause of elective hospital admissions among UK children aged 5–9 years, and the disease accounts for nearly 90% of tooth extractions in the age group. Given that consuming soft drinks is a risk factor for caries, UK researchers have examined whether a levy introduced in 2018 on sweetened drinks has reduced hospital admissions for carious tooth extractions. According to their findings, the added tax may have led to 12% fewer extractions in children.

The researchers examined the effect of the soft drinks industry levy on paediatric extractions of carious teeth by studying NHS hospital admission data from January 2012 to February 2020—a period that spanned the pre-announcement and post-announcement of the highly publicised law. They found that the mean incidence rate of hospital admissions per 100,000 inhabitants per month fell from 31.0 in the pre-announcement period to 28.5 in the post-announcement period, a reduction of 12%.

“Based on a population of 12,699,899 children aged 0–18 years in England in 2020, this reduction equates to an estimated 5,638 averted cases of hospital admissions per annum,” the study reads.

South Africa introduced an added tax on sweetened drinks in 2018 and researchers found in a 2021 study that the tax had significantly reduced sugar consumption from beverages. (Image: TassaneeT/Shutterstock)

The observed reduction in hospital admission rates was greatest in the age groups 0–4 years and 5–9 years, totalling 6.5 and 3.3, respectively, which the researchers said was significant owing to the higher likelihood of younger children being admitted to hospital for carious tooth extractions. No significant change was seen in the incidence of admissions in the age groups 10–14 years and 15–18 years.

Admissions were found to have been some five times higher in the poorest areas of the country; however, the reductions in the younger age groups were observed across all geographies, regardless of deprivation status.

Prof. Sumantra Ray, executive director of the NNEdPro Global Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health, commented in a press release: “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.”

Prof. Ray continued: “The economic effects of this are more pronounced given current challenges in the provision of far-reaching dental health coverage both in countries with nationalised 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.”

Introduced in April 2018 to tackle growing child obesity, the soft drinks industry levy, also known as the sugar tax, is a staggered levy applied to soft drinks sold in the UK. Drinks with 5–8 g of sugar added have an additional tax of £0.18 per litre (€0.20), and those containing more than 8 g carry an additional tax of £0.24 per litre.

The study, titled “Estimated impact of the UK soft drinks industry levy on childhood hospital admissions for carious tooth extractions: Interrupted time series analysis”, was published online on 14 November 2023 in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health, ahead of inclusion in an issue.

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