How the Sugary Drinks Tax was won: 10 lessons for committed campaigners

Ben Reynolds has been working at Sustain since 2004, and as Acting Chief Executive (2014 – 2015) developed Sustain’s first overarching strategy. Recently, Ben has worked with Jamie Oliver’s team to get the government to adopt a sugary drinks tax, and set up the Children’s Health Fund which has distributed money from a 10p voluntary sugary drinks levy from restaurants. 

This Friday (6 April 2018) marks the introduction of the Government’s Soft Drinks Industry Levy – commonly known as the sugary drinks tax – and a good time to reflect on the campaign and coalition of charities and champions that made it happen.

OK, I’m sure there are many more than 10 lessons we learned. These range from the bleeding obvious to those that ultimately may have been irrelevant in achieving this win – but they’re the big lessons that we’ll try and apply to our campaigns in future.


  1. It pays to be bold – gather your evidence and come up with a simple, clear ask. We did so and gathered the support of 60 organisations for our call for a children’s future fund, paid for by a sugary drinks duty.
  2. Build a broad coalition – we made it easy for organisations to support our campaign with inclusive language, asks, and content.
  3. Make it personal – we took data on the impact, for example money raised, savings to the NHS, and fewer cases of illness, and personalized them for every local area.
  4. Get the cause known – we showcased every new supporter we got from charities to ex-health ministers; we became well known in industry and media circles and became one of their first points of contact on this topic.
  5. Seize the moment – being prepared to be opportunistic, nimble and responsive are key tactics in many Sustain campaigns. This saw us hijacking the Coca-Cola truck tour and sponsorship of the London Eye dressed as tooth fairies.
  6. Stay on the front foot – keeping the campaign fresh and keeping your opponents on the back foot by commissioning actions from coalition partners, finding new partners, evidence and angles and plugging gaps in your arguments.
  7. Work with the right big name – Getting celebrity involvement really helped take this campaign to the next level. In this case Jamie Oliver and his team made all the difference, when married with Sustain’s alliance of organisations and understanding of the evidence, political processes and case for action.
  8. Use different and new campaign tools – alongside traditional tools (and dressing up as tooth fairies), working with Jamie Oliver we used the government’s new petition web page and within a little over 48 hours it surpassed the 100,000-signature mark needed to be considered for debate in Parliament (and crashed the site along the way with the weight of traffic!)
  9. Get the public on side – public support grew rapidly with increased coverage about the damage and cost associated with too much sugar intake. When public polling made this one of the most popular tax proposals in history (rising to 69% support in March 2016), it started to become of more interest to politicians. A point not lost on former Chancellor George Osborne, who on announcing the sugary drinks tax in his Spring 2016 Budget, focused as much on the benefits to children of what the levy would pay for, as he did on reducing sugar consumption.
  10. Don’t celebrate too early – the fight goes on – at the time, other bold government policy announcements had been ditched or weakened due to industry opposition. When the industry launched their ‘Can the Tax’ campaign, we countered with ‘Tax the Can’. Our role as outsiders changed to working closely with Treasury to champion the Levy – even though it wasn’t 100% what we called for – it was close enough to defend.

We would love to hear from other charities about how this compares with any lessons they learned from successful (and unsuccessful!) campaigns.

The full report on How the sugary drinks tax was won can be downloaded from the Sustain website.

Hear from more campaigners about the latest trends and what’s worked for them at our annual Campaigning Conference.

By Ben Reynolds, Deputy Chief Executive, Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming.

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