One in five people aged over 15 in Belgium drinks sugar-sweetened soft drinks at least once a day, the highest figure of all countries in the European Union.
Overall, 9% of all people living in the EU in 2019 drank sugar-sweetened soft drinks on a daily basis, putting Belgium 11% above the EU's average, 6% of people in the EU drank sugary beverages 4-6 times a week, while 19% had a sugary drink 1-3 times a week, according to figures from Eurostat.
"The share of people who reported that they drank sugar-sweetened soft drinks at least once a day was highest in Belgium (20%), followed by Malta, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria (all for which this figure was around 12%)," the Eurostat report read.
Across all countries, daily consumption of these drinks was more common among men than women (12% of men vs. 7% of women), whilst the frequency of consumption decreased as the surveyed age group increased, as the highest share was recorded among those aged 15 to 24 (14%), while those aged 65 to 74 and people aged 75 and over had the lowest shares (around 5%).
"These liquid sugars are an easy and unnecessary source of calories. They are, as it were, empty calories because they do not provide any useful nutrients and they do not satisfy your hunger," Loes Neven of the Flemish Institute for Healthy Living told VRT News.
Not taxed enough
The Belgian government introduced a sugar tax in 2015, meaning a tax of 11.9 cents would be added per litre for soft drinks with added sugar or sweetener and 6.8 cents per litre for flavoured water.
The aim of such a tax is to make people eat more healthily and thus to halt the rise in the number of overweight or obese people, however, according to the Flemish Institute for Healthy Living, this tax is too low, and as a result, does not bring about a change in behaviour.
"The current sugar tax is not a health tax, actually an increase in excise duty," Neven said. She argued that the tax was introduced too quickly without the advice of public health experts.
The Flemish Institute for Healthy Living said that, for a change in behaviour to happen, the price increase has to be at least 20% so that consumers turn to a healthier alternative.
It also stressed that a successful sugar tax is just one part of a wide health plan and that the revenue from a tax must be used to make healthy food cheaper or for other social programmes. In addition, the health tax must be part of a broader preventive health policy.
According to Sciensano Health Institute's 2018 figures, around 49.3% of all adults is overweight, whilst around 16% is obese. These percentages have all increased among young people (aged 2 to 17) and are now 19% and around 6%, respectively.
In the UK, where around 28% of all adults are obese, the sugar tax strategy focuses on the producer, giving them the choice to keep the sugar content and to pay a tax to the government in return. They can then pass the tax on to the consumer if they choose to keep sugar levels high.
As a result of the tax being introduced, many soft drink producers changed their recipes, and 50% of the drinks were less sugared.
In Mexico, the introduction of a sugar tax (resulting in a 10% price increase), saw consumption of sugary drinks there decreased by 7.6%.
Scientists in the EU are now advocating a tax of 20% or more and has argued that this should apply to as large an area as possible, for example across the whole continent, to avoid border shopping.