Sugary Drinks Becoming More Affordable Worldwide Since 1990

A new study finds that sugar-sweetened beverages have become more affordable relative to income in 79 of 82 countries analyzed. The authors suggested that soda taxes may be an important tool in curtailing the rise of obesity and diabetes.

A new study finds that sugar-sweetened beverages have become more affordable relative to income in 79 of 82 countries analyzed. The authors suggested that soda taxes may be an important tool in curtailing the rise of obesity and diabetes.

The study, published in Preventing Chronic Disease, explained that affordability as a share of income is a commonly used metric for measuring consumer access to products, particularly ones like cigarettes and alcohol, that are risk factors for chronic diseases. As sugary beverage consumption is associated with being overweight or obese, and rates of obesity and its related health effects have been rising globally, the researchers set out to determine whether sugary drinks have become more financially attainable in recent decades.

Using income data for 42 low- or middle-income countries (LMICs) and 40 high-income countries (HICs), as well as the average price of a liter of Coca-Cola in each country, the researchers compared the prices relative to income and any changes over time.

In 2016, the average price of soda was slightly higher in HICs than in LMICs, but the HICs had significantly lower income-relative soda prices. For instance, in Luxembourg it cost 0.11% of per capita gross domestic product to buy 100 liters of soda, while in Zimbabwe, it would cost 11.24%.

From 1990 to 2016, the real cost of soda decreased for most countries, and average real and relative-income prices became lower in both LMICs and HICs. Analysis of the affordability over time indicated that soda became less affordable as a share of income in just 3 of the 82 countries: Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, and Zimbabwe. The average annual percentage change in affordability was over 4 times higher in LMICs (8.76% per year) than in HICs (1.96% per year), meaning that “sugar-sweetened beverages became more affordable more rapidly in LMICs.”

China, an LMIC, had the largest average increase in affordability over the study period, as sugary drink prices declined and incomes increased from 1990 to 2016. In countries where both price and income went up, the price increases did not outweigh the income gains, so the sugary drinks still became more affordable. It was more common for the drinks to become more affordable through increased income rather than declines in beverage price.

The researchers noted that policy makers obviously do not want to hinder incomes from rising, so any economic interventions to discourage soda consumption will have to be enacted on the price side; for example, by imposing taxes on sugary drinks. Soda excise taxes were implemented in Hungary, France, and Mexico from 2011 to 2014, but these were likely too late for their effect to be seen in this study.

“We argue, and the scientific literature strongly suggests, that this environment of increasingly affordable sugar-sweetened beverages will inevitably drive increased consumption of such products and will certainly hamper global efforts to address the overweight and obesity epidemic,” the researchers wrote. They suggested looking to the fight against cigarette smoking for potential economic and policy tools to combat soda consumption, such as taxes, minimum unit prices, or a ban on discounted products.