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BMA advocates 20% tax hike on sugary drinks to curb obesity

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The British Medical Association is calling for 20 per cent tax hike on sugary drinks as a means to curb obesity crisis in the UK.

The suggestion is one of the many proposed measures to curb obesity and comes in the form of a report entitled “Food for Thought“. The report calls for more effective actions to curb the harmful effects of poor diet among kids.

According to BMA, poor diet and consequent ill health will cause an estimated 70,000 premature deaths a year. Further, the report also notes that issues related to obesity have a greater impact on the NHS budget than alcohol consumption, smoking or physical inactivity.

The BMA has proposed a wide range of initiatives to curb the problem of obesity and one that stands out is the proposal of tax on sugary drinks – to raise the price by at least 20 per cent. The BMA adds that the proceeds of this increased tax can then be utilised to subsidise healthier foods including vegetables and fruits.

BMA board of science chair Baroness Hollins asks in her foreword to a new report: ‘How can we expect a child to develop normative behaviours about eating healthily when so many of the messages they are exposed to promote the opposite?’ Baroness Hollins further adds that since the start of the recession the price of fruit and vegetables has increased by more than 30 per cent.

At the same time, sugar is available for cheap and is being used extensively in soft drinks. Previous studies into the sugar content of soft drinks have already found that a mug of drink packs a whopping nine spoonful of sugar.

Baroness Hollins points out in the foreword that other countries have managed to curtail the intake of sugary drinks by imposing similar tax on unhealthy food and drinks and if tax of at least 20 per cent is introduced in the UK, it could be expected to reduce the prevalence of obesity in the UK by around 180,000 people.

“This is an important way to help redress the imbalance highlighted previously between the cost of healthy and unhealthy products, which particularly impacts on individuals and families affected by food poverty”, Baroness Hollins adds.

The report also calls on the government to revise broadcasting guidelines to prohibit adverts of sugary drinks in or around any programmes that appeal to children and young people in any way.

It also says there should be provisions to stop such marketing around social and other non-broadcast media, and an end to the marketing of such products in schools, for example through sponsorship or branding of educational goods.

This would bring an end to the bizarre situation where, for example, tokens from innumerable packets of crisps have to be collected to buy a football for your child’s school — and the resulting calculation of the astronomical number of kicks that football would have to receive to equal the calorific intake of the crisps.

Another thing the report points out is the role of supermarkets in promotion of such food. The low-lying confectionery shelves near the checkout, for long the sworn enemy of the harassed parent, should go, says the report, and so too should the practice of ‘upselling’ unhealthy snacks at the time of payment in many shops.

Further, the report also calls for better education and consumer information. Instead of just relying on manufacturers for nutritional labelling on food items, there should be a mandatory, standardised approach based on the ‘traffic light’ system of colour coding, and unambiguous words such as ‘low’, ‘medium’ or ‘high’ to describe nutritional content, the report says.

The report also puts forward the role of schools in curbing obesity. The report notes that schools are also patchy in their provision of free fruit and vegetables to primary school children, with legal obligations varying around the UK.

Baroness Hollins says: ‘All academies and free schools must be subject to the same mandatory standards as state schools, as without them they are more likely to provide poor-quality food.’

Whatever children are fed in school, they will most likely face a gauntlet of fast-food shops as soon as they leave the gates. It was an issue brought up at the BMA annual representative meeting last month when Londonwide LMCs chief executive Michelle Drage said: ‘In Tower Hamlets, you can walk along the Mile End Road and see row after row … of fried-chicken shops, and that’s where the kids go.

‘Whose job is it to deal with the presence of fried-chicken shops and other fast food? It’s the local authorities but … even if they have the will, they don’t have the ability, or the law is not necessarily on their side to license or not license.’

The report agrees strongly with Dr Drage that local authorities should be given greater licensing powers to limit the ‘future number, clustering and over-concentration of fast-food outlets locally’.

The report also puts forward the issue of content of processed food and drink. Trans fats, saturated fats, salt and sugar can often be added during manufacture.

Recognising that the processes cannot change overnight, a staged approach is recommended. Within a year, no food or drink containing trans fats should be sold.

By 2017 there should be action to reduce salt levels systematically, and by 2020 there should be UK-wide targets on reducing calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar levels in a range of products.

For each — reflecting the signal failure of the voluntary approach to achieve comprehensive action — the report says regulatory measures should be implemented if the target is not met.