The UK is now top of the league in Western Europe when it comes to obesity. Obesity is a major cause of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers and ultimately accounts for around 70,000 avoidable deaths in the UK each year. Most worryingly a quarter of all our children are obese and all the research is clear that sugar is the main cause of childhood obesity.
There is no doubt that we would all benefit from reducing the amount of sugar in our diet but in my view when it comes protecting the health and life chances of British children there is no time to delay. We on the Health Select Committee are recommending that the Government introduce a series of measures to encourage a reduction is sugar consumption. The most controversial of these and potentially the most effective measure is the proposed introduction of a 20% ‘Sugary drink tax’. This has nothing to do with a nanny state. This is about protecting the health and well being of our children. All the research shows that sugary drinks typically are the greatest source of sugar in a child’s diet. There is some how an expectation that if a product is on open sale in our shops that it must be safe and okay. This is definitely not the case: consider that the recommended daily intake of sugar for an adult is seven teaspoons and five teaspoons for a child together with the knowledge that single portion bottles of sugary drinks, may each contain as much as 15 teaspoons. This is two to three times the recommended amount in just one drink. Introducing a tax on sugary drinks will not prevent the sales of these drinks but it will undoubtedly help to shift habits. My hope is ultimately that it will cause the drink manufacturers to reformulate their products so that they contain considerably less sugar.
Some of the critics of the tax have said that this is a step too far and product labelling would give parents the knowledge they need and allow them to make an informed choice but as Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef and food campaigner has said, “The time for gentle words has passed. We need to be bold”. I couldn’t agree more because the safety of our children is at stake. This is a step change in improving the nation’s health and will save lives.
Much has already been made of the fact that this tax would penalise the poorest families but actually the reverse is true because all the evidence shows that children from less advantaged families are far more likely to be obese therefore any action to reduce obesity will benefit them most.
There is no time to lose. I urge the Government to have the strength to stand up to the critics, to the drink manufacturers and other vested interests, to be bold for the sake of our children.