Crossing the border for a sugar fix
“It’s not for me. It’s a present for my boyfriend in the military,” a Norwegian teenager says as she fills large plastic bags with pick-and-mix sweets from a vast counter display.
We are in the Gottebiten sweetshop, just a few hundred metres inside Sweden – a shop designed almost exclusively for Norwegians to get their sugar fix for less.
This type of border shopping has taken off, not least because at the beginning of the year Norway’s tax on sweets and sugary drinks rose dramatically.
All sweetened drinks, including “diet” drinks with artificial sweetener, are now taxed at about 43p/litre (1.75 pints).
It’s about twice the rate of the UK’s new higher-rate sugar tax, which at 24p/litre will affect only the most calorific soft drinks on the market when it is introduced in April.
And in Norway, all sweets and chocolate, chewing gum and sweet biscuits are now taxed at £3.34/kg (2lb 3oz).
That means it’s surprisingly attractive to drive into Sweden, where there is no sugar tax – and goods are generally cheaper, thanks to the EU’s customs arrangements.
Gottebiten is testament to the popularity of these excursions, a 3,000-sq-m (32,000-sq-ft) temple to treats.
The pick-and-mix selection alone spans the equivalent of five supermarket aisles. And customers trail along them with plastic serving spoons, shovelling the wares into bags and buckets.
A further quarter of the shop is devoted to cans of fizzy drinks, which visitors, 95% of whom are from Norway, pick up by the crate and stack into shopping trolleys.
One customer has travelled 2,000km (1,200 miles) from Tromso, northern Norway, with her two children. She selects a few bars of Swedish milk chocolate.
Since the sugar tax increase came in, in January, “we are looking at about 10% more sales”, says Mats Idbratt, operations manager of 20 Gottebiten border stores.
“But it might be more than that. It’s a little early to tell.
“Right now we have two more stores in the pipeline on the border.
“We see that we’re getting more customers and we can also see that the existing customers we already have are buying more.”
The sugar tax in Norway was never intended to influence the health of the nation.
Introduced in 1922, it was a fiscal measure, designed to raise revenue from little luxuries.
But perhaps it is having an effect on the public’s choices, as just one in six Norwegian children is overweight, a figure that has remained stable in recent years. In the UK, it’s one in three.
For the Minster of Public Health in Norway, Ase Michaelsen, sugar reduction is a priority.
“We managed now to stabilise the obesity of children and young people, and I’m happy about that.
“It means that what we have done until now has been functioning in the right way, but we have also a lot of campaigns about eating five greens a day, more fruits, eating fish, wholegrain products and of course also being active out in nature and so on.
“So I think that we managed to stabilise it is a good sign for us, that it works.”
Norwegian minsters have also been working hard to encourage food manufacturers to reduce sugar in their products.
So far, 70 retailers have agreed to reformulate their recipes, with some cutting up to 80% of sugar content.
Ms Michaelsen says: “It’s going quite well. The main issue for us is to work together. Sitting at the same table, working out new policies, how can we make it work for the population.
“We can’t do it alone. We can’t just tell people or firms what they have to do. They have to be in cooperation with us.”
So while Norwegian families will continue to take advantage of Swedish border shopping for the things they love, ministers are hopeful that the range of measures in place are starting to make a difference.
Ms Michaelsen says: “My point of view is that it should be important to tell the public the facts, and the risks, of too much sugar.
“They can choose of course to drive to Sweden, or to buy it over the internet, but for me, it’s important they know what sort of risks they take if they get 2kg of candy every Saturday evening.
“They should know about that – there is a risk. Sugar is not good for your health.”