A tax on sweet treats such as cakes and biscuits could lead to a wider reduction in snack consumption, according to a new study.

New research, published in the journal BMJ Open, from Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has revealed that should a 10% tax be introduced on chocolate, confectionery, cakes and biscuits, this could lead to a 7% drop in overall snack purchases.

“We know that increasing the price of sugar-sweetened beverages is likely to generate a small, but significant, reduction in their purchase,” said lead author Professor Richard Smith from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“However, there has been little research on the impact that a similar price increase on other sweet foods, such as chocolate, confectionery, cakes and biscuits, could have on the purchase of sugar. This research suggests that taxing these sweet snacks could bring greater health gains and warrants detailed consideration.”

Publication of the research follows the introduction of a duty on soft drinks in a bid to combat obesity. The so-called ‘soft drinks tax’ has prompted suggestions for a similar levy on confectionery and other high-sugar foods.

The study analysed the relationship between price increases and consumer demand for snack foods across 32,000 UK homes, covering three different income groups. The results were similar to those in studies on soft drinks taxation, which have suggested a 10% price rise can reduce purchases by between 6% and 8%.

Researchers found that taxing sweet snacks could have knock-on effects on the sales of other food items, potentially reducing the purchase of biscuits and cakes by 1.2%, and savoury snacks by 1.6%.

A price increase on biscuits showed a potential reduction in demand for cakes by 2.3%, as well as a 1.7% decrease in overall chocolate and confectionery purchases.

The potential effects of price increases were greatest in the low-income group, with a 3% reduction in chocolate and confectionery purchases following a 10% price increase.

Consumption was not seen to fall among high-income participants, although the study excluded food and drink purchases consumed outside of the home (such as in restaurants), which are likely to be greater among bigger earners.

“It’s impossible to study the direct effects of a tax on snack food on consumer behaviour until such policies are introduced, but these estimates show the likely impact of changes in the price,” said Professor Susan Jebb from the University of Oxford.

“This research suggests extending fiscal policies to include sweet snacks could be an important boost to public health, by reducing purchasing and hence consumption of these foods, particularly in low-income households.”

However, some criticism has been levelled at the research findings by Christopher Snowdon of the free market Institute of Economic Affairs.

Snowdon said regarding the recent study: “There needs to be a moratorium on all nanny state bans and taxes, while we wait to see how the regressive sugar tax and Public Health England’s food reformulation scheme play out. The early indications are that consumers are unhappy with both of them.”