Government reticence on sugar tax and obesity policy leaves everything to play for in bitter battle

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

The UK food industry, the government and health campaigners will determine the country’s plan to tackle obesity, with the proposed sugar tax on soft drinks high in the agenda. ©iStock
The UK food industry, the government and health campaigners will determine the country’s plan to tackle obesity, with the proposed sugar tax on soft drinks high in the agenda. ©iStock

Related tags: Childhood obesity strategy, Nutrition, Obesity, United kingdom

The UK food industry, the government and health campaigners are locked in a bitter battle to determine the country’s plan to tackle obesity. At its heart is the proposed sugar tax on soft drinks.

This week businesses from up and down the UK food and drink supply chain joined forces to fight the tax. The new campaign – Face the facts, can the tax​ – will highlight the evidence that the tax won’t work, as well as the economic chaos it could cause: 4,000 job losses, £132m (€152m) “wiped off”​ GDP and a “new opportunity for unscrupulous importers”.

June’s vote to leave the EU has already given the UK’s Food and Drink Federation reason to call for a re-think on the tax, but the new figures from Oxford Economics – as reported on BeverageDaily last week​ – have added fuel to their fire. Reports today in a UK newspaper that the childhood obesity strategy could be published this week will also have put industry and campaigners on red alert.

“We know from the evidence around the world where they’ve tried a tax that it will not make a difference to obesity,” ​said Gavin Partington, director general at the British Soft Drinks Association, the organisation leading the charge. “What it will do [] is damage thousands of businesses across the entire soft drinks supply chain, from farmers, to manufacturers, to convenience stores and the pub and restaurant trade.”  

No credible evidence

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The UK's childhood obesity strategy has been delayed a number of times. ©iStock

BSDA’s campaign is backed by the FDF, as well as the National Farmers Union and also groups representing the food service and wholesale sectors. All believe they are making great strides to reformulate and educate.

“There is no credible evidence that a sugar tax will prompt a change in consumer behaviour,” ​said Paul Kenward, MD at British Sugar. “Even if it did, current government data show that total sugar consumption has fallen by 12.5% since 2001, while obesity rates continue to rise. This highlights that obesity is a
complex issue,”​ he added.

On the latter, most would agree. That the country’s childhood obesity strategy has been delayed a number of times is proof enough. A draft leaked last month suggested policies on reformulation and advertising have been watered down. The Government then moved to push publication back until the autumn​.

Today, UK newspaper The Sun​, reported that an announcement could come as soon as tomorrow, Thursday 17 August. A consultation on the proposed tax could also get underway this week. Insiders told the paper that the emphasis will be on voluntary agreements instead of bans and mandatory targets. “The health lobby will hate it,”​ said one.

Hard to stomach

running athlete track sport speed fitness iStock.com Jacob Ammentorp Lund
Malcolm Clark, from the Children’s Food Campaign, said money could be raised to pay for sports activities. ©iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

A weak strategy and a U-turn on the sugar tax for soft drinks would be hard for campaigners to stomach. Many attacked the new BSDA-led campaign as businesses “putting profits before people”.

Malcolm Clark, from the Children’s Food Campaign, said £520m (€600m) could be raised in the first year of the tax to pay for sports activities and healthy breakfast clubs. Contrary to industry protestations, our own research shows there would be no significant reduction in total employment in soft drinks manufacturing, with new jobs being created in making other products,” ​he explained.

Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, said the Chancellor would have been aware that a few people busy in churning out junk drinks might temporarily lose their jobs”, ​but when faced with the scale of the issue “he faced a no-brainer”.

George Osborne, the Chancellor who announced the tax, has since lost his job – culled in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. There is also a new Prime Minister in place. So far, Theresa May has kept everyone guessing regarding her plans to tackle obesity. This leaves everything to play for.

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