Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering finance and markets. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne took aim at the soft drinks industry on Wednesday, announcing a new tax on sugary drinks. Investors immediately dumped U.K. beverages: "Irn Bru" maker A.G. Barr and "Tango" seller Britvic both fell more than 5 percent, sugar and sweetener producer Tate & Lyle suffered a similar hit while Associated British Foods also fell.

Sugar Squeeze
News of a tax on sugary drinks hit the sector's shares
Source: Bloomberg data

But there are reasons to think this bitter pill will be an easier one to swallow than initially thought.

The tax doesn't take effect until 2018, so beverage producers have time to decide how to respond. The levy will be assessed on total sugar content rather than revenues or profits, so a company might find ways to change unit size or add alternative sweeteners to soften the impact.

The prospect of reformulation shouldn't come as a complete surprise -- companies have already had plenty of time to grapple with increasing suspicion from consumers over sugar content. Consumption of carbonated drinks and especially fruit juices has taken a hit in recent years, according to the British Soft Drinks Association, while bottled water consumption jumped 10 percent in 2013 and 9.3 percent in 2014.

More for Less
U.K. consumers have paid more for their soft drinks, even as consumption dips
Source: British Soft Drinks Association

But what's more likely is that manufacturers will pass the cost on to the consumer. BSDA data show that Brits have consistently been paying more per liter for soft drinks every year since 2010, even when overall volumes consumed have fallen. In fact, the U.K.'s independent Office for Budget Responsibility said it expected the new tax to be paid entirely by consumers.

And if ever the U.K. consumer were able to cope with this kind of tax increase, it's now. They've got some spending power -- pay growth has averaged 2.4 percent since the start of last year, far outstripping the inflation rate, which has hovered around zero.

Sweet Tooth
A.G. Barr, maker of "Irn Bru", has a bigger revenue exposure to U.K. than Britvic or Tate & Lyle
Source: Bloomberg data, FY2015

A.G. Barr and Britvic are certainly in the firing line, as they have strong revenue exposures to the U.K. But even though the soft drinks tax is not exactly sweet news, shareholders' pessimism may prove short lived.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. The levy will be charged on volumes according to total sugar content, says the Treasury. There will be a main rate charge for drinks with more than 5 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters, and a higher rate for drinks with more than 8 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters.

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