At the beginning of November, a NHS report announced some worrying news: childhood obesity is on the rise again. The UK ranks 9th for childhood obesity amongst developed countries, with a third of children aged 2-15 classified as overweight or obese. Obesity is occurring in children at an even younger age; in reception classes across the UK, one in ten children will be obese. When these children leave school, aged 11 obesity rate will have doubled to one in five.
The cost is astronomical; the yearly spend on obesity and diabetes by NHS England is £5.1 billion. This outweighs public expenditure on the fire service, police and judicial system combined. A government action plan aims to reduce the rate of childhood obesity dramatically over the next ten years, but so far their recommendations have been largely ignored.
One of the key culprits of the obesity epidemic is sugar. High levels of sugar consumption correlate with type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and, unsurprisingly, increased weight in children. A single 330ml can of sugar-added soft drink instantly takes a child over their recommended daily allowance, containing as much as 35g of sugar. This includes normal Coca-Cola, Red Bull, Irn-Bru, and Schweppes tonic. In the 2016 Budget, George Osborne announced a soft drinks industry levy or ‘sugar tax’, expected to begin in April 2018.
"One of the key culprits of the obesity epidemic is sugar"
A group of soft drinks manufacturers, pubs and convenience stores have formed an alliance campaign called ‘Face the Facts, Can the Tax’, aiming to prevent the tax from being ratified. They argue that the tax will not cut childhood obesity levels, will affect consumers and put thousands of jobs at risk. They also believe the tax will be regressive, meaning a greater burden will be placed on people with lower incomes who buy more sugary drinks. The counter argument is that these measures will benefit poorer children most, as they are twice as likely to be obese compared to children from better off backgrounds.
Soft drink companies such as Coca-Cola have warned against the tax, saying it will increase the price for shoppers. However, it should not have to; the tax targets producers and importers of sugary soft drinks, encouraging them to switch to diet drinks, or reduce the levels of sugar in their drinks. The two year time frame is deliberate as to allow companies time to reformulate their drinks, to make them healthier. It is important to note this is not a tax on all sugar. Solid foods, fruit juices and high milk content drinks will not be taxed.
In England, the tax funds raised (an estimated £520 million) are supposed to be reinvested into physical activity programmes for children, including dietary advice. The UK is not the first to propose these measures; governments in Finland, Mexico, and France have introduced taxes to curb the consumption of soft drinks and the World Health Organisation has backed these measures.
The measures have garnered support from a range of campaigners, including NHS chief executives and most prominently from Jamie Oliver, who described the levy as a demonstration that ‘a robust government can get control of big business when it comes to child health.’
This is clearly a significant step to combating the biggest health problem of our generation. However, the sugar tax in isolation will not control the obesity epidemic. Other recommendations of the action on childhood obesity plan include reducing the amount of sugar by 20% in everyday products (including breakfast cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, pastries, and confectionary), encouraging businesses to create healthier products through innovation, and helping children to complete an hour of exercise each day.
Critics of the government, including the CEO of Sainsbury’s and the British Medical Association, have argued the government has largely ignored these proposals and has been influenced by the food and drink companies’ extensive lobbying. The sugar reduction scheme is voluntary, and the exercise programme is only 30 minutes at primary schools. Further measures such as banning promotions of buy one get one free and restricting advertising of unhealthy food before the watershed are supported by Public Health England but do not appear in the Government’s strategy.
It is likely that such a complex health problem involving human nature, environment, genetics and culture will only be solved by a multidisciplinary approach.