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Sugar tax on its own will not tackle obesity

August 18, 2016

Theresa May said she would be a more interventionist Prime Minister than her predecessor. She promised to help British industry and do more to tackle inequality. I rather hoped that she meant it. But if today’s childhood obesity strategy is anything to go by, they were hollow words.

Health inequality scars Britain, with life expectancy varying widely even within the same towns. Theresa May could have done something about a public health issue that is making the gap wider, obesity. Instead she watered down draft ideas, bowing to pressure from food manufacturers. So she has indeed helped industry, ignoring those pesky experts, much derided in the Brexit debate.

Apart from warm words and exhortations to cut sugar content the only tangible measure is the soft drinks industry levy announced by George Osborne in what turned out to be his last Budget. The “sugar tax” will bite on drinks that have more than 5% sugar content (specifically 5 grammes per 100 millilitres) with a higher levy on drinks with 8% added sugar content. The higher levy will increase the price of both Pepsi and Coke and will even catch Lucozade, which according to the BBC has 8.7g sugar per 100ml.

The government has rejected other measures recommended by public health experts, such as mandatory clear labelling, advertising restrictions or product placement in supermarkets. Without such complementary measures the sugar levy will be just a new regressive tax on the poor.

Compare this inertia on sugar with the measures taken on tobacco. High levels of duty make cigarette packs an expensive product but in recent years those packs have been covered up in shops, can’t be sold from vending machines and will soon be sold in plain packaging with stark health warnings. As Chair of the cross party parliamentary committee on smoking I was at the forefront of these changes. I wouldn’t put sugar in the same category of danger as tobacco and as anyone who knows me will attest, I am a chocoholic! But if we are to reduce sugar content in drinks (the government is not proposing anything for cakes or confectionery) a tax will not be enough.

Reducing the consumption of harmful substances requires a holistic approach including marketing, advertising, public information, provision of alternatives as well as pricing and tax measures. Tackling obesity also requires sustained investment in sports and physical recreation activities in which everyone can participate, as well as elite Olympic athletes. After my general election defeat last year I took up swimming and try to go to Bristol’s Horfield pool three times a week. I’m fitter and slimmer as a result.

Excessive levels of sugar in food and drink is a public health problem, leading to weight gain and obesity. Children and adults who are obsese are at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart and liver disease and of course tooth decay. It is legitimate for a responsible government to act to reduce the risk of such outcomes.

Libertarians, including too many Liberal Democrats, often lambast public health measures as the actions of a nanny state. I would wear a nanny state liberal badge with pride. Effective tobacco control measures have given Britain one of the lowest smoking rates in the developed world. In the years ahead fewer people will have lives impaired and cut short by lung disease. But we’re still a nation of binge drinkers and have high rates of teenage pregnancy. Given Theresa May’s timidity on childhood obesity I doubt if we’ll see any action in these areas.

Without an effective all embracing public health strategy for tobacco, other drugs, alcohol, fat and sugar too many people, mostly from communities already held back by low wages and poor educational standards will live unhealthy and shorter lives. Poor health is a drain on the NHS and saps economic productivity. But it leads to misery for too many families. A government that truly wanted to help people succeed in life would be bold rather than timid on public health.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kit permalink
    August 18, 2016 8:49 pm

    I think it would be better if the experts had produced concrete proof that their strategy works before causing such rigid measures. Ancel Key’s lipid hypothesis is now being questioned very intently by some these days. That has caused both a lack of trust in experts and generations of eating habit change that has seen barely any results that I am aware of. This is an extremely complex issue that will not be solved by a narrow tax and throwing money at the situation without a solid plan. There are people having success with obesity, but they are not in positions of power and the food companies scupper truth at the point of source with manipulation of scientific research. The medical establishment is woefully inadequate to tackle a complex issue such as this. The NHS needs reforming against the will of our culture – now that’s an uphill struggle. I also read that the possible instigator of all this, Jamie Oliver, has taken a massive pay out to promote a Brasilian fast food chicken company. I also note that his food is not different from food regularly eaten by people trying to lose weight and failing, ie he is not doing anything dramatically different. Do-more-eat-less does not work from an evolutionary perspective and we might even find out that the technological age causing evolutionary selection and energy saving light bulbs have their part to play. I am not saying these things are the cause or the main issues, but just trying to expand the limit of possibilities about how complex this issue is. Also, I know it is good to bash the incumbent political party, but I, probably naively, believe that we should agree with people when they have good ideas (not that you agree, just some Lib Dems might). I do applaud that you care and are up for change.

  2. August 18, 2016 9:19 pm

    Thanks for your considered response. Yes, all public health problems are complex and there are no magic bullets (such as a sugar tax) so a multi-faceted approach is needed.

  3. Bristol angry permalink
    September 14, 2016 1:50 pm

    Are you the MP who blindly supports sex offenders?

  4. January 4, 2017 10:11 pm

    I completely agree that there needs to be a holistic approach, but I reject the idea of a soda tax being a regressive tax on the poor. Water is free and that is what we all should be drinking (assuming clean water which we generally have in the UK/USA). There is evidence that the soda taxes have reduced consumption (see Mexico and Oakland, Ca) and that can only be a good thing. It is not a silver bullet and we need to see a huge education effort in order to counteract the big soda/food industry messages of energy balance and eat less and exercise more! As an aside, I am a pediatric endocrinologist and I see the a huge amount of obesity and type 2 diabetes in the young, which frustrates and saddens me each and every day.

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