David Cameron’s government had previously said it would not consider fiscal measures as a means to prevent rising obesity.
The negative effects of sugar on health have been making the headlines this week. A study published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology Journal concluded that a 40% sugar reduction in sugar-sweetened beverages over five years could prevent 300,000 cases of type 2 diabetes in the UK in the next two decades, and an observational study also published this week found the 10% tax levied on sugar-sweetened beverages in Mexico has led to a 12% decrease in sales.
Meanwhile campaigners as well as public policy advisors – Public Health England and the Health Select Committee – have called for a sugar tax, leaving the prime minister increasingly alone in his rejection of a tax.
Asked about the Mexican example at a press conference in Hungary yesterday, Cameron said: “I don’t really want to put new taxes on anything, but we do have to recognise that we face potentially in Britain something of an obesity crisis when we look at the effect of obesity not just on diabetes but the effect on heart disease, potentially on cancer, when we look at the costs on the NHS, the life-shortening potential of these problems.”
“We do need to have a fully worked-up programme to deal with this problem and address these issues in Britain and we will be making announcements later in the year. We need to look at this in the same way [as] in the past [when] we have looked at the dangers of smoking to health, and other health-related issues.”
A tax equally important to other measures
The U-turn was welcomed by campaigner Jamie Oliver.
But Tam Fry from the National Obesity Forum and expert advisor for campaign group Action on Sugar told us to have an impact the tax should be considerably higher than the proposed 20%.
“The tax is just one of the many measures that David Cameron must introduce to tackle obesity. It is equal in importance to reformulation, portion sizes, advertising and control over promotion etc , but has the advantage that it could be swiftly introduced and kick start the reduction in sugar consumption that everybody should be working towards," he added.
A government source told The Times the mood in Westminster was changing.
“We want to learn the lessons from examples such as the sugary drinks tax in Mexico," the source said.
"This does not mean a tax on sugar – your bag of Tate & Lyle isn’t about to become more expensive. And there are still lots of arguments against. But we have not ruled anything out and no decisions have been made.”
Food industry lobby, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has spoken out against a tax on sugar in the past. Upon publication of the Health Select Committee’s report, which called for a tax, FDF Director General Ian Wright said it would leave consumers out of pocket.
Meanwhile, the British Soft Drink Association pointed to a lack of evidence for its efficacy.
“By its own admission the Health Select Committee is merely proposing this tax because it’s easy to do yet there is no evidence worldwide that such a tax has an effect on obesity,” it said in a statement.