Tax ‘addictive’ sugar to combat growing levels of obesity, says chief medical officer

Dame Sally Davies believes levy may be needed to reduce intake, but critics claim move would 'hit poorest hardest'

The Government could be forced to bring in a tax on sugar to help combat growing levels of obesity, the Chief Medical Officer for England has warned.

Dame Sally Davies told the Health Select Committee she expected ongoing research to establish that sugar is addictive. And she said that being overweight had become “normalised” in the UK and feared that today's children would live shorter lives than her parents' generation.

Responding to Dame Sally's remarks, a leading food industry body insisted sugar was not a cause of obesity - when eaten as part of a balanced diet - and said a tax would hit “the poorest families hardest”.

She was speaking ahead of an expected announcement by the World Health Organisation today that the recommended level of sugar in people's diet be reduced dramatically. A well-placed source told The Independent that the current recommended figure of 10 per cent of total energy intake from “free sugars” - mainly refined and fruit sugars - would be cut in half to 5 per cent.

A WHO spokesman declined to comment.

Speaking to the committee, Dame Sally said that she believed that “research will find sugar is addictive”.

She said: “We may need to move toward some kind of sugar tax, but I hope we don't have to. We have normalised being overweight. I do fear this generation of children will live less than my parents' generation.”

Dame Sally Davies: 'We have normalised being overweight' Dame Sally Davies: 'We have normalised being overweight'
About 64 per cent of adults in the UK are considered to be overweight or obese. Obesity is a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease and other serious medical conditions and costs the NHS billions every year.

In September, sugar was described as “the most dangerous drug of the times” by Paul van der Velpen, head of Amsterdam's health service.

Professor Terence Stephenson, chairman of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which produced a report last year calling for a tax on sugary drinks, welcomed the idea of a more general tax.

“We would be entirely supportive of the principle,” he said.

He said sugar gave people a “rapid high” which then drops while they are still producing insulin, resulting in a “craving” for more.

Professor Stephenson said concern particularly centred on processed foods where sugar and corn syrup were added to “sweeten the food and give children and adults a palate that likes sweet things”.

He rejected suggestions that a sugar tax would represent too high a level of state interference. “The nanny state can be a caring state,” he said, adding that government intervention had brought about things beneficial things like seat belts and drink-drive limits.

However Terry Jones, of the Food and Drink Federation, said many foods were taxed at the VAT rate of 20 per cent and “any additional taxation of food will hit the poorest families hardest at a time when they can least afford it”.

“We need all parties to act together to empower more appropriate choices by consumers,” he said.

“Sugars, or any other nutrient for that matter, consumed as part of a varied and balanced diet are not a cause of obesity, to which there is no simple or single solution.

“That's why the food industry has been working on a range of initiatives with other players to tackle obesity and diet related diseases through a number of interventions.”

Labelling on food enabled consumers to find out the sugar content of the food that they buy, Mr Jones said, adding that the industry had taken action to reduce sugar along with salt and saturated far.

“Delivering on these commitments will require considerable research and investment as well as consumer acceptance of new recipes that can result in changes in taste, texture and ingredients,” he added.

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