Sugar tax: Government plans criticised as ‘feeble’ while food bosses say measures are too tough

The food and drinks industry’s involvement in the campaign will be voluntary, and only if it fails to reach the targets set will the Government consider using ‘other levers’

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The Government is set to kickstart its long-awaited campaign to combat obesity amid an outcry from health campaigners that is “feeble” compared with what was expected, and protests from the food and drinks industry that it is far too tough.

The announcement will include a target for food manufacturers to reduce the level of sugar in food and drink by 20 per cent in five years – but it will be voluntary, and will not include many of the measures demanded by health campaigners, such as curbs on advertising. Theresa May is understood to have overruled what she considers to be symptoms of a “nanny state”.

But she has given the go-ahead to a levy on sugary drinks that was trailed in George Osborne’s Budget in March, despite vehement protests from the industry that it will be ineffective and will destroy thousands of jobs.

The document, Childhood Obesity – a Plan for Action, says that “all sectors of the food and drinks industry will be challenged to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20 per cent by 2020, including a 5 per cent reduction in year one.”

The campaign, coordinated by Public Health England, will focus initially on the foods that make the largest contributions to children’s sugar intakes, such as breakfast cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, pastries, puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads.

But the industry’s involvement in the campaign will be voluntary, and only if it fails to reach the targets set will the Government consider using “other levers”.

There is also a section in the document that suggests that Brexit will give the Government more scope to regulate how food is labelled, adding “this might include clearer visual labelling, such as teaspoons of sugar, to show consumers about the sugar content in packaged food and drink”.

The plan also specifies that “every primary school child should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day. At least 30 minutes should be delivered in school every day through active break times, PE, extra-curricular clubs, active lessons, or other sport and physical activity events, with the remaining 30 minutes supported by parents and carers outside of school time” and gives Ofsted the responsibility for making sure primary schools comply.

The Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, is to lead a campaign to “encourage” free schools and academies to meet the same food standards that comprehensive schools are required to meet.

But there is no mention of other measures demanded by health campaigners, such as curbs on television advertising that would, for instance, ban the use of cartoon characters to promote cereals and snacks, and ban advertising of junk food during family shows.

That omission was described by the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron as a “sugar-coated deal to big business” and a “disgrace”. He said: “Why will the Conservatives not stand up for our children? It is especially dumb as any short-term gain in revenue from selling junk will be lost in future spending by the NHS.”

Kath Dalmeny of the Children’s Food Campaign said. “Anybody who has seen any part of the strategy is using the word ‘feeble’.” 

She added: “The soft drinks levy is the only serious policy commitment, and is already being attacked by the food and retail industries. They really don’t want to see a sugary drinks tax introduced. The 20 per cent target is a voluntary measure, so not much different from earlier Responsibility Deals, which have been ineffective. ‘Encouragement’ is a feeble response; what about ‘requiring’?

“It says that ‘the actions in this plan will significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next 10 years’. Really?”

The announcement that the soft drinks levy will go ahead comes only two days after a coalition of British businesses launched the Face the Facts, Can the Tax campaign, claiming that it would cost 4,000 jobs across the UK and cause economic output to decline by £132m.

Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, which funded the campaign, said: “Given the economic uncertainty our country now faces, we’re disappointed the Government wishes to proceed with a measure that analysis suggests will cause thousands of job losses and yet fail to have a meaningful impact on levels of obesity.

“As an industry, we recognise we have a role to play in tackling obesity, so it’s a sad irony that the one category that has led the way in reducing consumers’ sugar intake – down 16 per cent from soft drinks since 2012 – is being targeted for a punitive tax.

“We’ll share the evidence during this consultation in the hope Ministers reconsider a measure that is both unnecessary and harmful to the economy.”