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UK Doctors demand a 20% tax on sugary drinks to fight obesity epidemic

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Doctors demand a 20% tax on sugary drinks to fight UK obesity epidemic

BMA report says use money to subsidies fruit and vegetables, and demands regulatory action from taxation to clampdown on marketing to children

Other countries have begun to experiment with sugar taxes, with Mexico’s the most far reaching. Though set at 10%, public health experts recently reported that it is having an effect.

Sarah Boseley Health editor

Monday 13 July 2015

Britain’s doctors are calling for the government to impose a 20% tax on sugar-sweetened drinks to pay for subsidies on fruit and vegetables in an effort to slow the obesity epidemic.

A report from the British Medical Association demands tough regulatory action on a whole range of issues, from taxation to a clampdown on the marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children, mandatory standards on the food available in all schools and bans on clusters of fast food outlets.

“Doctors are increasingly concerned about the impact of poor diet, which is responsible for up to 70,000 deaths a year, and has the greatest impact on the NHS budget, costing £6bn annually,” said Prof Sheila Hollins, chair of the BMA board of science.

“While sugar-sweetened drinks are very high in calories they are of limited nutritional value and when people in the UK are already consuming far too much sugar, we are increasingly concerned about how they contribute towards conditions like diabetes.”

Other countries have begun to experiment with sugar taxes – the most wide-reaching of which is in Mexico. Although it set at 10%, public health experts have recently reported that it is having an effect. Berkeley in California also brought in a tax recently, after a battle with food industry champions.

“We know from experiences in other countries that taxation on unhealthy food and drinks can improve health outcomes, and the strongest evidence of effectiveness is for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. If a tax of at least 20% is introduced, it could reduce the prevalence of obesity in the UK by around 180,000 people,” said Hollins.

“We know that the majority of the UK population, particularly low-income households, are not consuming enough fruit and vegetables, so financial measures should also be considered to subsidise their price, which has risen by 30% since 2008. This is an important way to help redress the imbalance highlighted previously between the cost of healthy and unhealthy products, which particularly impacts on individuals and families affected by food poverty.”

In 2011, David Cameron said the government was considering taxes on unhealthy foods, which would include those high in sugars, salt and saturated fats,. But when the ife sciences minister George Freeman raised the issue recently, he was slapped down. Asked in May if a sugar tax was being considered, the prime minister’s spokesman said a definitive no. The government would be looking at other ways of tackling obesity, the spokesman said.
The government has chosen to address obesity through the voluntary responsibility deal with the food industry, which asks companies to make pledges on measures such as labelling and cutting calories in their packaged food products.

But the government’s scientific advisory committee on nutrition (SACN) will this week publish its final report on carbohydrates in the nation’s diet, including sugars . Its draft report a year ago, which went out to consultation, said the nation should halve its sugar intake. Public Health England is now conducting a review into all the measures which might help, including fiscal measures.

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, confirmed taxation was part of the scope of their review in her response to the BMA report. “We have been reviewing the influences on peoples’ decisions to eat sugary food and drink, from marketing and promotions to reformulation and fiscal measures,” she said. “The government will consider our evidence over the coming months and we will publish it later this summer.”

Hospital doctors who treat people with obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes, heart problems and cancer, supported the BMA’s call for tougher regulation. “The Royal College of Physicians agrees with the BMA that there needs to be a strong regulatory framework and concerted action across all government departments to work on the prevention of health harms arising from obesity and poor diets,” said Prof Jane Dacre, RCP president.

“Although it is the NHS that is responsible for helping individual patients with the consequences of poor diets, the way to prevent this happening in the first place is to take action across the complex pattern of our lives – our environment, our transport, our leisure activities, our shopping and eating habits, and our education. Every government department should be not just passively aware of these issues, but actively producing policies to support the reduction in obesity and health harms.”

The government confirmed it was not considering a sugar tax. “Tackling obesity is of great concern to this government, and we have already committed to producing a childhood obesity strategy,” said a spokesman for the Department of Health. “There is no silver bullet but we do want to see industry go further to cut the amount of sugar in food and drinks so that people can make healthier choices.

“We have asked for expert advice about the amount of sugar we should be eating, which will be published soon, and this will be taken into account as we continue to work on our childhood obesity strategy.”

The Food and Drink Federation said it shared the BMA’s concerns about the health of young people, who needed “better, more balanced diets and lifestyles”. But its director general, Ian Wright added: “Many foods and drinks are already taxed at 20%. Where additional taxes have been introduced they’ve not proven effective at driving long-term, lasting change to diets. We welcome Downing Street recently unequivocally ruling out a sugar tax and committing to a partnership approach to public health.”


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