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Sugar Tax is no silver bullet for nation's dental crisis

(21 Apr 2016)

IDA says if tax is introduced, proceeds should go to oral healthcare programmes.

Association says greater focus on education and labelling would pay health dividend.

The Irish Dental Association has warned that the introduction of a sugar tax will not provide a miraculous quick fix solution to the chronic levels of tooth decay which is prevalent amongst Irish children.

The Association, which is holding its annual conference in Galway, said every dentist was in favour of limiting the intake of visible and hidden sugars, but said achieving such a reduction, required a multi faceted approach.

Studies show that half of all Irish 12 year olds and 75% of all 15 year olds have some decay in their permanent teeth. Recently the British Chancellor George Osborne announced plans to introduce a ‘sugar tax’ on producers of sugar-added soft drinks over the next two years. The £520m revenue will be used to fund sports programmes in schools.

Outgoing President of the IDA, Anne Twomey said the focus here should be on encouraging people to reduce the frequency and volume of high sugar content drinks and food they consume, not on how much they are paying for these products.

“There is overwhelming evidence that sugars in food and beverages are the main dietary causes of tooth decay and erosion in children and adults. In addition to dental decay, people who consume excess sugar suffer higher rates of heart disease and diabetes” she said.

“We believe the best approach to this issue is through a coordinated programme of education and promotion in tandem with an effective school screening programme at junior infant level or even via free dental care for the under sixes. No studies on lost school time have been carried out here but studies estimate that more than 51m school hours are lost each year in the US due to dental problems and children with poor oral health are three times more likely to miss school due to dental pain” she said.

The IDA would support public health warning labels being carried on all carbonated soft drinks and the introduction of legislation which would stipulate that the sugar content of all foods and drinks are highlighted. The Association believes that if a ‘sugar tax’ is introduced the revenue raised should go towards oral healthcare programmes. It said that while it was encouraging to see some companies such as Dolmio taking proactive action on labelling, this area  was so important it required government oversight.

While manufacturers may respond by reformulating their products – a preferred outcome – the Association said they may also simply increase the prices of other products to compensate for the tax. Dr Twomey pointed out that while the sugar tax in the UK had been supported by a number of high profile figures such as celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, some obvious questions were being ignored.

“Have any studies been carried out to test the effectiveness of sugar taxes where they have been introduced? What about the 60% of the population here who do not consume sugar sweetened beverages? As well as fizzy drinks would the tax also cover fruit juices? What happens if consumers switch to alternative untaxed sugary drinks? What about the disproportionate effect such a tax will have on lower income households? These are important questions and we really haven’t heard convincing answers to any of them” she said.

“Irish children are amongst the highest per capita consumers of soft drinks in the western world. Rather than gearing up to tackle this problem the HSE made severe cuts to its dental service catering for children – there has been a 20% net reduction in dentists employed by the HSE to care for children– and now those children and their dentists – are dealing with the consequences of that decision. Studies show it is children from more deprived backgrounds who have a higher risk of decay and unfortunately these are the very people who have been hardest hit by the HSE’s cutbacks in the public dental service” Dr Twomey concluded.