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Should sugary drinks face extra tax?

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith

18th February 2012 -- Doctors want the cost of sugary drinks increased by at least 20%.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges says the move would help to break the cycle of obesity-related illnesses and death.

The academy believes the potential £1 billion extra tax it would bring in could help fund additional weight management programmes.

Measuring up

As well as the sugary drink tax, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges report, called Measuring Up, also recommends:

  • Healthier hospital food standards
  • Banning new fast food outlets close to schools and colleges
  • Traffic light food labelling to include calorie information for children and teenagers and visible calorie indicators to be displayed in restaurants and fast food outlets
  • £300m spent over three years on extra weight management services
  • Banning TV ads for food high in saturated fats, sugar and salt before the 9pm watershed.
  • Extending mandatory food and nutrition standards in England's state schools to include free schools and academies

Obesity: 'Biggest public health crisis'

24% of women and 22% of men in the UK are obese. One in three children is overweight or obese by year six at school.

Launching the report, the academy's chair Professor Terence Stephenson, says in a statement: "It is no exaggeration to say that it is the biggest public health crisis facing the UK today. Yet too often, vested interests dub it too complex to tackle.

"It’s now time to stop making excuses and instead begin forging alliances, trying new innovations to see what works and acting quickly to tackle obesity head on - otherwise the majority of this country’s health budget could be consumed by an entirely avoidable condition."

What's the evidence for sugar tax?

"The evidence is very strong," Tam Fry from the National Obesity Forum, tells BootsWebMD. He cites a major Lancet study in 2010 on measures to combat preventable diseases and obesity. "Top of the list was taxes on food and drink," he says. "If you tax food and drink you will reduce the quantity of calories consumed. That will have an effect on the number of people who are liable to contract diabetes type 2, cardiovascular problems, cancers and other things, which would be a saving for the NHS."

The benefits of extra tax on sugary drinks were also investigated by US researchers writing in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009. They admitted the exact effect of a sugar tax couldn’t be known until it is implemented, but there's evidence that "a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would have strong positive effects on reducing consumption".

The researchers wrote: "We believe that taxes on beverages that help drive the obesity epidemic should and will become routine."

That's not a view shared by Sugar Nutrition UK, a research group funded by the sugar industry, which says "there is a paucity of evidence on the effect of food taxes on consumption, diet composition and health."

It says research suggests "that any effects of plausible tax-rates are likely to be minimal and not effective in reducing disease risk."

Instead of a tax on sugary drinks in the shops, Tam Fry would prefer a different approach. "Much more likely to succeed would be a fiscal levy on the manufacturers.

"The government would say to the manufacturers: 'We would fine you heavily if you don’t produce drinks which are free from excess amounts of sugar and empty calories.'"

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