The government is under serious pressure to drop its opposition to a tax on sugary drinks, following the publication of a hard-hitting report from MPs which says a 20% levy is an essential part of any national strategy to tackle child obesity.
David Cameron has consistently ruled out a sugar tax, but the cross-party health select committee, chaired by the Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, strongly backs it as one of a range of tough interventions designed to reduce the availability of unhealthy foods.
Writing in the Guardian, Wollaston says the stark inequalities in childhood obesity and, as a consequence, the chances of a healthy adult life, make a compelling case for action by the prime minister. A quarter of the most disadvantaged children are obese by the time they leave primary school, double the rate among the most affluent. “We do not believe that this is an attack on low income families as industry lobbyists will no doubt claim, but rather an essential part of trying to reverse the harm caused by these products,” she says.
As the report was published, campaigners and health groups queued up to support the tax and other regulatory measures, hoping to influence the government’s child obesity strategy, which will be published in the new year.
A petition for a sugary drinks tax – launched by Jamie Oliver, who gave evidence to the committee, and signed by over 150,000 people – is being debated in Westminster Hall on Monday.
At the same time, an alliance of 19 influential health and campaigning organisations has been launched to lobby for change. The Obesity Stakeholder Group, which includes medical royal colleges, public health organisations and charities, has 10 recommendations to government on the advertising and marketing of unhealthy food, including introduction of the tax.
A 20% tax on full-sugar colas, lemonades and other popular drinks will not curb child obesity by itself, says the health committee report, but it cites evidence from Public Health England (PHE), which the committee successfully fought to have published during its inquiry, that it would reduce consumption at least for a while. Children consume three times more sugar than is recommended. Soft drinks are the biggest source, accounting for 29% of the sugar intake of 11- to 18-year-olds and 16% for younger children.
The drinks industry argues that such a tax would hit the poorest families hardest, but the report says those are the worst hit by obesity and that zero-sugar alternatives exist which would be cheaper. The money raised from the tax should go into a child health levy, directed at helping the worst affected.
There should be a sunset clause so that the tax can be repealed if it fails to work but, says the committee: “A sugary drinks tax is an essential part of a wider package of measures to tackle childhood obesity.” It is no longer possible to pick and choose which anti-obesity measures – all will be needed.
The tax also has an advantage over some other measures in that it can be brought in very swiftly, the committee says.
“The scale and consequences of childhood obesity demand bold and urgent action from government,” says the report. “We urge the prime minister to make a positive and lasting difference to children’s health and life chances through his childhood obesity strategy.”
It calls for far greater controls on the promotion, advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods to children. It recommends an end to price promotions to stop supermarkets offering two cakes or packets of biscuits for the price of one. It wants sweets removed not only from checkout areas at supermarkets but also from sale in clothing shops and other non-food outlets. It calls for a ban on TV ads for any high fat, salt or sugary food, which would include products such as pizza and crisps, not just during children’s broadcasting but during any programme before 9pm.
Attempts to educate the public about the dangers of obesity do not work when the food industry is spending £256m on promoting unhealthy food and drink, as it did last year, says the committee in its report. It casts doubt on the usefulness of the voluntary Responsibility Deal agreements with industry as well as the social marketing venture Change4Life, which have until now been the government’s two flagship anti-obesity initiatives.
The committee is clear that market intervention is required if the current high levels of child obesity are to come down. One fifth of children starting in reception class each year is overweight or obese and that rises to a third of those moving on to secondary school in year 6.
There are few interventions to help obese children lose weight and most become obese adults, at risk of serious health problems including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Treating obesity is estimated to cost the NHS £5.1bn a year and diabetes costs it £8.8bn. But the UK spends only £638m on obesity prevention programmes, says the report.
It is imperative to change the food environment, the report says: “Physical activity has enormous benefits, regardless of weight, but encouraging people to increase their physical activity levels alone is unlikely to have an impact on the obesity crisis.”
PHE said in response to the committee’s report that the promotion of sugar to children had to change. “PHE’s evidence is clear; what we see in the media, on our streets and in shops is encouraging us to eat too much sugar,” said Dr Alison Tedstone, PHE’s chief nutritionist. “We need a range of measures including controls on marketing, advertising and price discounts of sugary products and reducing the added sugar in foods and drinks, to help tackle the obesity epidemic.
“Being obese can have a devastating impact on a child’s life. They are more likely to experience bullying, low self-esteem, be absent from school and have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease in later life.”
The Obesity Stakeholder Group, which includes the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the British Medical Association, Cancer Research UK, Diabetes UK, the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of GPs and of Psychiatrists, the Faculty of Public Health and the Royal Society for Public Health, backed the advertising ban and the sugar tax and called for fewer displays of unhealthy products in shops.
The campaigning organisation Action on Sugar welcomed the recognition that education and increasing children’s physical activity alone would not be sufficient. “It is inevitable that manufacturers will have to reformulate their food and drink products to reduce the amount of sugar, fat and overall calories,” said the nutritionist Jennifer Rosborough.
The British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) spurned the committee’s call for a sugary drinks tax. “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,” said Gavin Partington, the BSDA director general.
“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.” Reducing portion sizes and reformulating products – both of which the committee also recommends – were far more effective, he said.