MPs back sugar tax, but industry fights back

A group of MPs has thrown its weight behind a proposed tax on sugary drinks to battle child obesity – along with other measures.

These include tougher restrictions on marketing and advertising, including a ban on advertising unhealthy food before 9pm and a crackdown on price promotions and branding techniques such as the use of cartoon characters. Clearer labelling, with sugar content expressed in teaspoons, is already recommended.

The reported by the Commons Health Committee follows months of campaigning and reports about the impact of sugar on health, including a report by Public Health England which called for a sugar tax.

The industry has reacted negatively to the report, suggesting the recommendations over-simplify the situation and would prove ineffective.

Katharine Teague, head of advocacy at AB Sugar, said: “It is disappointing that the recommendations in the Health Select Committee’s report on childhood obesity focus so heavily on sugar, because this over-simplifies an extremely complex issue.

“We agree that the obesity crisis requires ‘bold and urgent action’ and that we all have a role to play in solving this issue. We also agree that measures to reduce calorie intake, including sugars, can help people to lose or control their weight. As the report notes, exercise – or a lack of it – is also an important factor. But there is no silver bullet solution. Focusing so heavily on just one particular ingredient, as the report does, over-simplifies the issues involved and is not an effective way to tackle the obesity crisis. Indeed, the suggestion that sugar is the main reason for the rise in obesity rates is simply not supported by the evidence – current UK government data shows that total sugars consumption has declined by 12.5% per capita since 2001, while obesity rates continue to rise.

“What is required is a broad policy approach developed by a cross-disciplinary taskforce, with the implementation of holistic measures based on robust scientific evidence.”

Only 40% of Britons

Meanwhile, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) claimed only 40% of Britons thought a tax on sugary drinks would be effective and even fewer considered a ban on supermarket price promotions would work.

Ian Wright, director general at the FDF, said: “Instead of presuming to speak for the British public, as some health campaigners have done, we’ve asked consumers directly whether they think a sugar tax would be effective at tackling obesity. The public’s instincts mirror what the facts are telling us – that there isn’t evidence that a tax would make any difference to obesity. Last month, Public Health England, which called for a new tax on top of the 20% VAT charged on soft drinks, conceded that there was no long-term data showing it would work.

“The causes of the obesity challenge we face in this country are far more complicated than any single ingredient, food or drink. We need to follow the evidence and help people to improve their overall diets and become more active. Food and drink companies are already playing their part by adapting recipes and limiting portion size, and are willing and ready to do more.”

Any efforts to tax sugar could by nullified by the lifting of EU sugar subsidies and high fructose corn syrup production restrictions. Due to be implemented by 2017, the reforms could cause sugar prices to plummet, making it more attractive than ever for food manufacturers to use as a filler ingredient.

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