By: Haroon Siddique
David Cameron has refused to rule out the possibility of a sugary drinks tax in England, comparing the impact of sugar on people’s health to that of smoking.
The prime minister had previously ruled out any form of sugar tax but has come under increasing pressure from campaigners, experts and MPs to reverse his stance and introduce a levy as part of the government’s childhood obesity strategy, expected to be published next month.
The pressure intensified this week after a study published on Wednesday showed that a 10% sugary drinks tax in Mexico had led to a 12% reduction in sales of such beverages after a year. Another study published on Tuesday said reducing the amount of sugar in soft drinks and fruit juices by 40% over five years could prevent 300,000 cases or diabetes in the UK and stop 1.5 million people from being overweight or obese.
Asked about the sugar tax in light of the Mexican study, Cameron said: “I don’t really want to put new taxes on anything, but we do have to recognise that we face potentially in Britain something of an obesity crisis when we look at the effect of obesity not just on diabetes but the effect on heart disease, potentially on cancer, when we look at the costs on the NHS, the life-shortening potential of these problems.
“We do need to have a fully worked-up programme to deal with this problem and address these issues in Britain and we will be making announcements later in the year. We need to look at this in the same way [as] in the past [when] we have looked at the dangers of smoking to health, and other health-related issues.”
Cameron has found himself increasingly isolated as Public Health England, the chief medical officer, the Commons select committee on health, and campaigners Including Jamie Oliver have pushed for the introduction of a sugary drinks tax.
But until his comments on Thursday at a press conference in Hungary, the Department of Health was continuing to insist it was not under consideration. Instead it was advocating alternative approaches, including working with the drinks industry to try to lower the level of sugar in food.
Campaigners agree that other methods should be used, but say a tax is the best short-term option.
They welcomed Cameron’s comments but said any tax would need to be set at a high enough level to have an impact.
Prof Graham MacGregor, chair of Action on Sugar and co-author of the paper on reducing the amount of sugar in soft drinks and fruit juices, said: “It should be an escalating tax, like alcohol, like cigarettes, and increase according to how the industry responds.”
The National Obesity Forum spokesman Tam Fry said the Mexico paper provided “hard evidence” that was difficult for Cameron to ignore. But he echoed MacGregor’s call, saying any tax had to “be tough”. “Ten percent, 20% is not going to be enough, but 50% will hit the purchaser in the eye. We’ve got to try it, time is running out.”
Children consume an average of 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 Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who chairs the Commons health select committee, said: “I think David has public support on the grounds that this is a crushing public health emergency and we cannot ignore the fact that a quarter of children in the least advantaged postcodes are leaving primary school obese.”
The British Soft Drinks Association has claimed there is no evidence that a tax on its members’ products would have an impact on obesity.
Originally Published: The Guardian