Sugar tax may have reduced hospital admissions for child tooth extractions, study suggests

sugar levy linked to reduction in hospital admissions for tooth extractions in children

The sugar tax may have reduced the amount of child hospital admissions for tooth extractions, according to new research.

Also known as the UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy, it was introduced in 2018, requiring manufacturers of drinks with over 5g of sugar to pay a ‘sugar tax’.

New research published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health suggests that the number of under 18s having a tooth removed due to decay may have fallen by 12% as a result.

Researchers analysed hospital admissions data for tooth extractions in a population of nearly 13 million children under 18. The data spans the six years between 2014 and 2020, two years after the levy was introduced. Overall trends were recorded, as well as the impact of factors such as neighbourhood deprivation and age.

The largest reduction in hospital admissions was in the under nine age group. A reduction of 6.5 admissions per 100,000 was noted in children between zero and four. However, there was no significant change among children aged 10-18.

In total, the researchers estimated that 5,638 hospital admissions for tooth decay were avoided. Reductions in admissions were seen in children living in most areas, regardless of the level of deprivation.

‘A significant onward burden on dental services’

The researchers acknowledge that other national interventions may also have contributed to the reduction in decay-related hospital admissions. These include the sugar reduction programme and compulsory nutrition labels. As the study was observational, it is impossible to fully attribute the change to the sugar tax.

Nevertheless, they felt that the research ‘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’.

Professor David Conway is a co-author of the study and professor of dental public health at the University of Glasgow. He said: ‘Tooth extraction under general anaesthesia 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.’

In England, almost 90% of all tooth extractions in children are due to decay. This leads to approximately 60,000 missed school days a year. Sugar-sweetened drinks account for around 30% of the added sugars in the diets of children between one and three years. The proportion increases to 50% in older teenagers.

The relationship between sugar-sweetened drinks and tooth decay is well-documented. However, this is the first study to analyse the impact of the sugar tax on the oral health of children.

Professor Sumantra Ray, executive director of the NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition & 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.’

Expanding the sugar tax

According to the British Dental Association (BDA), key opinion leaders in dentistry believe the levy should be expanded into other types of product. This might include milk-based drinks, biscuits, cakes, sweets, yoghurts and cereals. The association stated that this would drive widespread reformulation of high sugar foods and need not raise costs for consumers.

BDA chair Eddie Crouch said: ‘The sugar levy is delivering the goods in the fight against decay, so it’s time to double down. This isn’t about adding to the cost of living. When voluntary action has clearly failed, this shows government must force industry’s hand on cutting sugar.’

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