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Doctors’ leaders call for 20% sugar tax amid warnings over impact of poor diet

Doctors’ leaders are calling for a 20% per cent tax on sugary drinks to subsidise the sale of fruit and vegetables, and help tackle the increasing level of obesity and diet-related health problems in the UK.

As a third of the population are projected to be obese by 2030, a new report from the BMA, Food for Thought, highlights the need for wide-ranging action to promote healthier diets, particularly among children and young people.

It also calls for new legislation to ensure that all the 3500 academies and 200 free schools in England adhere to the same mandatory food standards as state schools, such as not serving soft drinks and providing at least one portion of fruit every day.

Professor Sheila Hollins, BMA board of science chair, said: “Doctors are increasingly concerned about the impact of poor diet, which is responsible for up to 70,000 deaths a year, and has the greatest impact on the NHS budget, costing £6bn annually.

“While sugar-sweetened drinks are very high in calories they are of limited nutritional value and when people in the UK are already consuming far too much sugar, we are increasingly concerned about how they contribute towards conditions like diabetes.

“We know from experiences in other countries that taxation on unhealthy food and drinks can improve health outcomes, and the strongest evidence of effectiveness is for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. If a tax of at least 20% is introduced, it could reduce the prevalence of obesity in the UK by around 180,000 people.”

The report also calls on the government to ensure that free fruit and vegetable schemes are available in all primary schools in the UK.

Hollins added: “We know that the majority of the UK population, particularly low income households, are not consuming enough fruit and vegetables, so financial measures should also be considered to subsidise their price, which has risen by 30% since 2008. 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.”

The report comes a week after the Chancellor removed £200m from the public health budget.

Professor Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, commented: “We want early intervention so that healthy eating habits are instilled from infancy; research to understand the adverse impact of poor diet during pregnancy and infancy on later health and to determine effective ways to combat this vicious cycle; and for much better data recording and analysis to know whether progress is being made.

“In the meantime best current evidence supports our recommendations that prevention is key. We urge Government to implement a public education campaign and evaluate the health impact of taxes on sugary drinks and unhealthy foods as a matter of urgency. These are crucial to safeguarding the nation’s heath.”

Report recommendations at a glance:

  1. Overall approach to diet-related ill health
  2. Improving attitudes and knowledge about healthy dietary behaviour
  3. Limiting unhealthy cues and the promotion of unhealthy of unhealthy food and drink products
  4. Creating an environment that promotes healthy dietary behaviour
  5. International cooperation on nutrition
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