Experts call for sugar tax, but doubt official support

Experts debated if duties on foods deemed unhealthy would help people adopt better diets

Sugar tax is a good idea, but the government may be unwilling to implement it, according to expert panellists taking part in Food Manufacture’s webinar on obesity.

Speaking during  Obesity and health, the big fat, sugar and salt debate , which aired on July 3, Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, said: “We know that duties … work.

“If you look at cigarettes, look at alcohol, the higher the tax, the lower the consumption. Certainly my view is that we should plan in the UK to put a tax on sugar as a threat to the food industry in order to get them to conform to targets and we could have regulatory targets for sugar.

“That’s been done in many countries for salt across the world and we know exactly how to do this and we can do the same for fat.”

MacGregor cited the tax on sugary soft drinks in France, claiming the latest information indicated that it was reducing sweetened, soft carbonated drink consumption. Mexico, which had exceptionally high obesity rates, has also imposed a duty on sugar, he added.

‘Would work’

However, he continued: “Yes, it would work; the question is: would the government do it and the government’s more likely to go for a voluntary reformulation, which has worked for salt, albeit a lot more slowly than what we would like.”

He warned the poorest people in the UK had no choice over what they would eat – they had to buy the cheapest products, so these needed to be reformulated.

Dr Charlotte Evans, lecturer in nutritional epidemiology and public health nutrition at the University of Leeds, said: “There’s a lot of emphasis on individuals making the decision; it’s no good if you target reformulation, but then market and advertise foods high in fat, sugar and salt, put them on the end of [supermarket] aisles.

“We need a holistic approach … we are in a position where the cheapest foods are not good for our health and so I think that tax is a very good idea, and of course evaluating to make sure we do identify any unforeseen circumstances as well.”

However, Barbara Gallani, director of regulatory affairs, science and health at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) cited figures that cast doubt on the effectiveness of tax as an incentive.

‘Not particularly successful’

“There are examples of taxes that have been tried in other countries and they have not been particularly successful. I was looking the other day at data from France [on soft drinks tax].

“Although in 2012 the volumes of sales decreased by two percent, in 2013 the volumes grew by 0.5% and since the beginning of 2014, they have increased by a further six percent.”

Barbara stressed the food industry had successfully brought down salt content in foods and cited FDF members’ recent commitment to deliver a 250 calorie cap on single-serve confectionery items by spring 2016.

As part of the Department of Health’s Public Health Responsibility Deal, these efforts, together with continued initiatives to cut saturated fat content, showed the industry was willing to make a difference.

'Dead duck'

However, MacGregor called the Responsibility Deal “a dead duck in the water”, insisting it wasn’t working and a common reporting mechanism and clearer targets were needed.

Three influential groups – the Institute of Food Science & Technology, the British Dietetic Association and the Nutrition Society – backed the webinar in a bid to introduce more science into the obesity debate.

Missed the free, one-hour webinar? Don’t worry, once registered, you and your colleagues can listen any time, any number of times to the broadcast. Register here.

Watch out next week for more reports and video interviews, plus answers to question our expert panel did not have time to answer on FoodManufacture.co.uk.

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Comments (1)

Mythbuster - 07 Jul 2014 | 05:59

Where is the vested interest?

Whenever there is a history of disagreement on scientific evidence it is usually because the data is being used to support a view rather than the data being assessed neutrally. Can we get a balanced view? The interests of FDF are potentially mixed as presumably non-sugar sweetener producers benefit if sugar is maligned and sugar producers if not, so presumably they are actually neutral. Who funds Prof MacGregor? Clearly his salt campaign under CASH influenced FSA at the time and must have been funded by some organisation. The salt substitue manufacturers maybe? Now the multi-talented Mr MacGregor he seems to be an expert on sugar? I wonder who is funding this campaign? Perhaps a side line in lagomorphs. Dr Charlotte Evans presumably also has research funded. This is not to say the results or the interpretation are in anyway influenced it is just the type of research can be selective. What is lost in this focus on fat, sugar and salt (all somewhat influecned by mythology and mantra)is true nutrition, where all nutrients are considered in a complex matrix and dietary habit to deliver the body's physiological needs to live happily ever after.

07-Jul-2014 at 17:59 GMT

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