By: Denis Campbell and Paul Johnson

NHS chief to introduce sugar tax in hospitals to tackle UK obesity crisis

Hospitals across England will start charging more for high-sugar drinks and snacks sold in their cafes and vending machines in an effort to discourage staff, patients and visitors from buying them, the NHS England chief executive said. 

In an interview to mark the Guardian’s major new series on the NHS, Stevens pledged to introduce a sugar tax in hundreds of acute, mental health and community services hospitals by 2020 and every local health centre. 

The move will make the NHS the first public body in the UK to bring in a sugar tax, and it will use the expected proceeds of £20m-£40m a year to improve the health of its own 1.3 million workers.

“Because of the role that the NHS occupies in national life, all of us working in the NHS have a responsibility not just to support those who look after patients but also to draw attention to and make the case for some of the wider changes that will actually improve the health of this country,” Stevens said.

“We will be consulting on introducing an NHS sugar tax on various beverages and other sugar-added foods across the NHS which would be enforced over time as contracts for food catering and the shops that are in the foyers of hospitals come up for renewal over the next three to five years over a rolling basis.

“By 2020, we’ve either got these practices out of hospitals or we’ve got the equivalent of a sugar tax on the back of them,” added Stevens, who has a strong working relationship with David Cameron and George Osborne.

Without bold measures, the obesity crisis – already causing huge health problems such as type 2 diabetes – threatens to overwhelm an NHS that is already under increasing pressure. Explaining why tough action was needed, Stevens said: “It’s not just the wellbeing of people in this country and our children. But it’s also the sustainability of the NHS itself.” 

Stevens’s remarks come as Downing Street’s policy unit is trying to finalise what measures the forthcoming childhood obesity taskforce will include.

Bad diet has recently overtaken smoking as the biggest single cause of the 40% of lifestyle-linked avoidable illness the service treats. He added: “Smoking still kills 80,000-plus people a year, smoking is still a huge problem. But it turns out that diet has edged ahead.” 

He also criticised shops for fuelling obesity by offering two-for-one deals on cakes, biscuits and other treats and positioning such snacks close to checkouts where people may be queuing. “Even the national chains … let alone the Elephant & Castle shops [near NHS England’s London base] – it’s all there,” he said.

Such practices are among the significant things causing the growth in dangerously expanding waistlines that means two-thirds of Britons are now overweight or obese, Stevens added. 

The NHS boss said he backed all the various measures that Public Health England recently showed would reduce sugar consumption, including a new levy on products containing significant excess sugar. Many medical groups and health charities want that set at 20%, but NHS England has not decided what it should be.

Despite planning an NHS-wide sugar tax, Stevens said that compelling food producers to make their products healthier through a rolling programme of mandatory reformulation was more important as a way of counteracting obesity. 

“We’ve taken out 15% of added salt from our food over the course of the last decade. We need to set comparably ambitious targets for added sugar and hold the food industry to account for that with regulatory action to guarantee that … [it happens in] … a matter of several years,” Stevens said.

“There is an important case for not doing this overnight with a big bang, but doing it on a phased basis. It’s partly around re-educating our palates and the palates of our children. The effectiveness of doing this is about doing it in a way that enables tastes to change back to what they were not so long ago, before we put ourselves on a national sugar high.”

Stevens also: 

 Castigated retailers in poorer areas for marketing sugary snacks to customers much more prominently than those in better-off places.

 Said that so-called ‘high energy drinks’ that are being sold to children are also way off the scale of acceptability because they contain so much sugar and suggested that ministers should consider restricting the age of who is allowed to buy them.

 Suggested that giving bariatric surgery to 1.4 million very obese patients, as some experts have proposed, would swallow up all of the NHS’s extra £8.4bn budget.

The National Obesity Forum backed Stevens’s plan. Tam Fry, its spokesman, said: “An NHS sugar tax is absolutely correct. The NHS should be leading by example in the fight against obesity.

“Stevens is also right that reformulation is more important than a sugar tax. The food industry won’t like it and will try to wriggle out of it. There will have to be an independent body, financed by the government, to supervise the food industry, like when the Food Standards Agency supervised the reformulation of salt.”

Originally Published: The Guardian