Bold and urgent action required on obesity – that means a sugar tax, say UK MPs
“The scale and consequences of childhood obesity demand bold and urgent action from Government. We urge the Prime Minister to make a positive and lasting difference to children’s health and life chances through his childhood obesity strategy,” says the report.
Chair of the Health Committee, Dr Sarah Wollastone, said a package of measures should be introduced as soon as possible, and that it should include a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
While the Conservative government has previously said fiscal measures would not be part of its child obesity strategy, due early next year, calls for a tax on sugary drinks have been intensifying. Later today Parliament will debate a request for a tax on sugary drinks made via an online petition which received over 150,000 signatures.
One fifth of children are overweight or obese when they begin school, rising to one third by the time they leave primary school.
Children from deprived socio-economic backgrounds are twice as likely to be obese in primary school than the least deprived children.
Treating obesity and its consequences is currently estimated to cost the NHS £5.1bn every year, but only around £638 million is spent on obesity prevention programmes.
Echoing a 2014 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, the MPs said policymakers should experiment with solutions, rather than waiting for the perfect proof of what works.
“In our view, the evidence is sufficiently strong to justify introducing all the policies we recommend. Rather than wait for further evidence to follow from international experience, we urge the Government to be bold in implementing policy, with the assurance of rigorous evaluation and sunset clauses if found to be ineffective,” says the report.
The report endorses the obesity-cutting measures made last month by Public Health England, and while it says no single area will offer a solution in itself, it calls for action in nine different areas, including:
• Restrictions on price promotions of junk food
• Tougher controls on marketing and advertising of junk food
• A centrally led reformulation programme to reduce sugar in food and drink
• A sugary drinks tax with all proceeds funding child obesity measures
• Labelling to show sugar content in teaspoons for single portion products with added sugar
It also calls for measures to raise awareness and improving food in schools.
'A worrying lack of understanding' - or a PR stunt?
Unsurprisingly, the report was slammed by industry trade group, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which said the rapporteurs had simply swallowed the agenda of pressure groups.
It also said the calls for additional labelling were illegal.
“The fact that the Report calls on manufacturers voluntarily to label ‘added sugars’ in products, in the form of a teaspoon graphic, when to do so would be illegal, is characteristic of a worrying lack of understanding,” said Wright.
FDF claims a majority of consumers do not support a tax on sugary drinks, after commissioning an independent poll involving 2,005 British adults, which found that four in ten believed a tax would be effective in reducing obesity, while 67% said it would penalise those who consume soft drinks responsibly.
Ian Wright, director general of FDF, said: “The public’s instincts mirror what the facts are telling us – that there isn’t evidence that a tax would make any difference to obesity. Last month, Public Health England, which called for a new tax on top of the 20% VAT charged on soft drinks, conceded that there was no long-term data showing it would work.
Meanwhile Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, slammed the report as a PR stunt.;
“This was not an inquiry in the conventional meaning of the word. It was part of the PR campaign by the health lobby to persuade Ministers to introduce a tax on soft drinks.
“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.
Katharine Teague, head of advocacy at AB Sugar said it was disappointing that the recommendations focussed so heavily on sugar which "over-simplified an extremely complex issue".
The full report can be read here.