Media coverage of the sugar debate

5th December 2018

Analysis of how UK newspapers presented the sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages policy debate suggests that media representation was frequently supportive of sugar tax and this may have played a role in shaping its acceptability.

Excess sugar consumption, including that from sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), contributes to a variety of negative health outcomes, particularly for young people.

Researchers analysed how sugar and SSB policy debates were presented in UK newspapers at a time of heightened awareness and following the March 2016 announcement of the UK Government’s soft drinks industry levy (SDIL).

684 articles published in 11 national newspapers from April 2015 to November 2016 were analysed.

Reporting was particularly driven by public health advocates, campaigners and industry representatives. The most common theme associated with excess sugar consumption was adverse health consequences including obesity and related diseases, and the health risks were particularly associated with children. 

Peaks in coverage coincided with key publications and policy events: Public Health England’s report “Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action” in October 2015; a study published in the BMJ “Beverage purchases from stores in Mexico under the excise tax on sugar sweetened beverages: observational study” in January 2016; and the UK Government’s soft drinks industry levy announcement in March 2016.

The problem of excessive sugar consumption was often characterised as being driven by the food and drink industry’s production and marketing of ‘unhealthy’ sugary products. The problem was primarily characterised as having governmental solutions with almost half of articles specifically calling for a tax on SSBs, although industry voluntary responsibility was also mentioned.

Articles predominantly supportive of SSB taxation outnumbered those that were predominantly oppositional. However, oppositional articles outnumbered supportive ones in the month that the government announced the SDIL.

The study was led by Christina Buckton, with co-authors Professor Shona Hilton, Chris Patterson and Professor Vittal Katikireddi from the SPHSU, and colleagues from the Department of Public Health & Policy at the University of Liverpool.

Christina Buckton, Research Assistant, said: 

“Excess consumption of sugary food and drinks is a major public health concern, contributing to obesity, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes and other diseases.”

“Our results suggest that the policy landscape favouring fiscal solutions to curb sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages consumption may have benefited from media coverage characterising the issue as an industry-driven problem. However, future advocacy efforts should note the surge in opposition coinciding with the announcement of the soft drinks industry levy, which echoes similar patterns of opposition observed in tobacco control debates.”

The palatability of sugar-sweetened beverage taxation: A content analysis of newspaper coverage of the UK sugar debate is published in PLOS ONE.

First published: 4 December 2018

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