Consumption has fallen to record lows, but candy superstores in the neighbouring country are booming as the levy rises again
It seems unfair to call it a sweet shop. In the shopping centre north of Charlottenberg in south-western Sweden, barely four miles from Norway and less than 90 minutes’ drive from Oslo, is a candy superstore.
Arrayed across 3,500 sq metres of floor space – half a football pitch – are aisle upon aisle of sugary treats, more than 4,000 products in all, from sour strawberries, liquorice laces and fruity gumballs to red rockets, Lion bars, M&Ms, Milky Ways and Oreos.
One of maybe 30 similar confectionery and soft drink stores lining the Swedish side of the border from south to far north, it is, said Matts Idbratt, operations manager for Gottebiten – which runs half of them – “the biggest sweet shop in the world. We think”.
Between them, those stores turn over about SEK2bn (£160m) a year – and they exist solely because the price tags on the pick’n’mix bags, snack bars, chocolate boxes and soft drinks they sell are, on average, less than half those in neighbouring Norway.
“It’s crazy,” said Eirik Bergland, a 39-year-old laboratory technician from the Oslo suburb of Bjerke. With three children under 12, he has made three cross-border shopping trips this year – although not just for sweets, he stressed.
“A lot of products are cheaper in Sweden than in Norway,” Bergland said. “Alcohol, tobacco, plenty of stuff. Cross-border shopping has happened for decades. But candy and soft drinks are a lot cheaper. A whole, whole lot cheaper.”
Matilda Nordholm, 24, who drove to Långflon, two hours from her home near Lillehammer, for her most recent sugar fix, spending about £150 – “Not all for me, though” – was critical.
“It’s not right, what these products cost in Norway,” she said. “It’s not normal, and every year it seems the price goes up again, and there’s more tax. People here are more and more unhappy they have to pay so much for a little bit of pleasure.”
In January last year, the levy on chocolate and confectionery was raised by 83% to 36.92 kroner (£3.12) per kilo, while sugary drinks – including “diet” drinks containing artificial sweeteners – are taxed at about 43p a litre.
Unhappy they may be, but experts say the exorbitant cost of sweets and sodas in Norway may be part of the reason why sugar consumption in the Scandinavian country has fallen to a historic low of 24kg per person per year – down from 43kg in 2000, and by 27% in the past decade.
In Britain, meanwhile, Public Health England says sugar consumption rose 2.6% between 2015 and 2018, an increase it blamed on people eating more very sugary products – of which there are more and more in the shops. Roughly one in six children and young people are obese in Norway, compared with one in three in the UK.
Linda Granlund, the divisional director of public health at the Norwegian health directorate in Oslo, said the country’s sugar tax – first introduced in 1922 to raise revenue for the state, rather than improve the health of the nation – was one of many factors behind the fall.
“For several years now, we’ve also had a very successful voluntary partnership with both Norwegian and some international food and drinks manufacturers, 98 of them now, who have signed a letter of intent to improve the diet of Norway’s population, including a commitment to sugar reduction,” Granlund told the Guardian.
“That’s helped us cut the sugar in added-sugar soft drinks by 30%, for example. We’ve also worked intensively on food guidelines in schools and preschools, both to make sure the food children eat there is healthy and on educational programmes.”
Finally, Granlund said, Norwegian authorities have “communicated continuously, for many years now and through many channels, about the need for a healthy diet. As a result, 80% of Norwegians now say they want to avoid consuming too much sugar.”
Norway is considered a leader on advertising regulation, with food manufacturers and suppliers agreeing in 2013 to voluntarily ban the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children younger than 13.
The dramatic rise in the sugar tax on confectionery and sweetened drinks may well have contributed in the past year, Granlund said.
Not all consumers disapprove. Silje Kristiansen, 47, a school secretary from Sandvika west of Oslo, agreed the rise was “huge”, but said healthy eating – especially for children – mattered more. “We know sugar is a killer,” she said. “Anything that helps us cut down is good.”
Across the border, retailers were certainly smiling. The tax increase had “quite an impact on our sales”, said Idbratt, whose giant sweet emporium is part of a booming cross-border trade that earned Swedish businesses – some owned by Norwegian investors – SEK16.6bn (£1.3bn) last year, 10% more than in 2017.
Idbratt said Gottebiten, founded by three entrepreneurial brothers in 1997, had “seen more customers, and existing customers are buying more”. Norwegian shoppers made 9.2m trips across the border last year, according to Statistics Norway.
Nonetheless, the health directorate proudly reported this week that consumption of confectionery in Norway, which trebled from 5kg per person per year in 1960 to 15kg in 2008, had fallen to just over 12kg last year, while sales of sugary soft drinks were down from 93 litres per person in the late 1990s to 47 litres.
It is not just Norway’s consumers, however, who are unhappy at the ever-increasing cost of indulging their sweet tooth. Confectionery producers are indignant, too, arguing that they have already done their bit by substantially cutting sugar content and the higher tax rate represents a double punishment.
One major manufacturer, Hval, said this year the sugar tax increase had triggered a 27% slump in sales and forced it to lay off a third of the staff at one factory. “Politicians must understand that they have gone too far,” said the plant manager, Rune Forsberg.
The food and drink branch of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, NHO, is lobbying for the sugar tax to be scrapped entirely, arguing it is outmoded, harmful to Norwegian industry, a boon for Swedish businesses across the border and – with sugar content and consumption both sharply down – no longer necessary.
But the health directorate is instead promoting what it believes would be a more effective charge levied on the healthiness – or otherwise – of a food or drink product rather than just its sugar content, which experts argue treats some relatively healthy products unfairly and allows other junk foods through the net.