Behavior Change
Jamie Oliver Proposes Tax on Sugary Drinks in UK; Industry Is Not Amused

UK chef and “Food Revolution”-ary Jamie Oliver teamed up with food lobbying organization Sustain to encourage the UK government to consider a tax on sugary drinks and use the proceeds to help curb childhood obesity.

Oliver launched a petition last week that has gained over 129,000 signatures so far. The UK Parliament considers all petitions that get more than 100,000 signatures for a debate.

“Studies show that soft drinks with added sugar are the largest single source of sugar in the diets of UK school children & teenagers,” reads the petition page.

“The food and soft drink industry stuff sugar into everything that they can as it is an extremely cheap ingredient. As a result many people are becoming obese and developing type 2 diabetes along with all its complications,” says Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Chairman of Action on Sugar.

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The petition proposes a tax of 7p (about $0.11 US) per regular-sized can of soft drink with added sugar, claiming that experts believe it could generate £1 billion per year (over $1.5 billion US).

Oliver and Sustain assert that “this crucial revenue should be ring-fenced to support much needed preventative strategies in the NHS [National Health Service] and schools around childhood obesity and diet-related disease.”

Oliver recently set up the Children’s Health Fund, to be supported and administered by Sustain, to encourage restaurants to self-impose levies on non-alcoholic, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and allocate the proceeds to programs focused on children’s health and education. Oliver’s restaurants have added a 10p levy, followed by restaurant chains Leon and Abokado.

In tandem, a documentary presented by Oliver, Sugar Rush, aired on UK television on September 3.

Not surprisingly, the industry trade group Food and Drink Federation (FDF) is not amused, and accused Oliver of simplifying a complex problem. The FDF used the example of a soda tax that was introduced in France in 2012, which caused an initial drop in sales, but said they have risen since.

“We welcome the prospect of a parliamentary debate on sugar taxes and maintain the view that they may have been shown to be ineffective and flawed in concept,” said FDF director general Ian Wright. “Additional taxes are not the answer, a view shared by the Department of Health, which continues to rule out a sugar tax.”

Wright called an additional tax burdensome, “regressive, ineffective and unworkable,” an opinion not shared by Sustain’s Children’s Food Campaign coordinator, Malcolm Clarke.

“Ultimately, it is industry action to reformulate products, change marketing practices, improve labelling and make healthier options more available and affordable which will make the real difference – and that can only be achieved through strong government action,” Clarke said.

“Robust science and evidence must be at the very heart of this debate if it is to inspire collaborative action capable of tackling obesity over the long term,” Wright added. “This is, after all, what we all want to achieve.”

While governments continue to debate the best courses of action in terms of how best – or if – to attempt to govern their citizens’ health, several companies have taken it upon themselves to provide transparent nutrition information to consumers: In 2014, Coca-Cola products in the UK began displaying traffic light-coded labels and Reference Intakes to indicate how much fat, salt and sugar each item contains; and earlier this year, Mars endorsed recommendations from the World Health Organization that people should limit their intake of added sugars to no more than 10 percent of their total calorie intake, and supported a new US Government proposal to include an “added sugars” declaration in the Nutrition Facts panel on all food packaging.

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