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LB4 Industry reactions to the UK soft drinks industry levy: unpacking the evolving discourse from announcement to implementation
  1. TL Penney,
  2. J Adams,
  3. M White
  1. On behalf of the NIHR PHR SDIL Evaluation Team


Background Within the context of a global movement toward taxes on sugary drinks, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) is unique in its construction – a two-tiered levy that aims to encourage industry to reformulate soft drinks. Industry decisions regarding reformulation will directly influence the health impacts of the levy, however how these reactions are covered in the media will also shape a wider public discourse on sugar and health. This work will examine the evolution of industry reactions to the levy from announcement to implementation, via articles published in news media and trade press.

Methods We searched the Factiva database of UK news media and trade press. A search strategy was used to identify articles related to sugar or soft drinks and related to the levy covering March 16th 2016 to March 31st 2018. Articles were screened using predefined criteria. Analyses included: (a) description of included articles by industry actor and (b) a longitudinal, case-based, thematic analysis of each industry actor.

Results 526 articles were included covering the ongoing reactions by nine soft drinks industry actors (e.g. AG Barr, Britvic, Coca-Cola European Partners) during six policy development milestones and two national events. Early results demonstrate a discourse of disagreement with the aims of the SDIL immediately after its announcement with emergent themes including ‘no evidence that sugar taxes reduce obesity’, ‘the poor will suffer’ and ‘this will destroy industry and kill jobs’. Reactions also included contradictory themes such as ‘most products are not impacted’ and ‘we support government actions on obesity’. Throughout the consultation phase and during the Brexit vote and snap election further themes emerged including ‘threats of legal action’ that were not always consistent across industry actors but dominated until Royal Assent for the legislation. Throughout the parliamentary process the discourse shifted toward acceptance of the levy and undertaking efforts to adapt including ‘diversification and innovative marketing efforts’ and various ‘cost management actions to offset the levy’. As the implementation of the levy approached, acceptance was reinforced by additional themes that sought to ensure perceived profitability with ‘claims of strong sales and profits’ and ‘calls for investment in a sector with clear growth’.

Conclusion The shifting discourse suggests that industry actors are continually navigating issues of public, government and commercial interests, which results in conflicting narratives. Further work is needed to explore the discourses surrounding other related actors such as government, civil society and academics.

  • Soft Drinks Industry Levy
  • food industry
  • public discourse

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