Crisps and chocolates should be taxed to pay for harm to NHS and public, says England's top doctor

'Do you want to call that nanny state? If so I’m chief nanny,' chief medical officer says of recommendations to make fruit and veg more affordable than junk food

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Friday 21 December 2018 01:22
Sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks 'fuelling obesity epidemic among children'

England’s chief medical officer (CMO), Professor Dame Sally Davies, has called for taxes on crisps and chocolate to combat excessive salt and sugar harming the public’s health and costing the NHS billions tackling obesity and diabetes.

Professor Davies said the food industry’s failure to deliver on the current voluntary targets was making it impossible for children and their parents to make healthy choices.

Under the present system, manufacturers, shops and food outlets profiting from cheap, unhealthy food “are not paying for the harm that’s doing”, particularly among deprived communities, Professor Davies said.

In her annual report she called on the government to expand the current tax on sugary drinks and said profits should be used to “subsidise healthy fruit and vegetables”.

“Our sugar targets haven’t been met so far; if we don’t get there we will need a fiscal effort to mandate it, and the same with salt,” she told a briefing on Thursday.

“We should give [the food industry] a chance but if they don’t deliver it we need to threaten them with mandating it, and then do it.”

When asked if this amounted to an expansion of the nanny state, Professor Davies said she saw it as ensuring everyone could access healthy options regardless of where they lived or went to school.

“We have to shape it so it’s easy to take the healthy choice. Do you want to call that nanny state? If so I’m chief nanny,” she said.

The number of children the NHS is treating for type 2 diabetes, which is largely caused by obesity and poor diet, has risen 40 per cent in the past three years.

One third of children leaving primary school are obese and a record proportion of 10- to 11-year-olds (4.1 per cent) were morbidly obese, according to Public Health England (PHE) figures.

The government is considering measures to limit fast food outlets near schools and other measures but on Thursday announced it was cutting public health budgets for obesity and children’s services by £85m next year.

“The settlement announced today by the Department of Health and Social Care confirms a real-term cut of £240m in just one year,” David Finch, senior policy fellow at The Health Foundation, said.

‘Increasing spending for the NHS while cutting funding for services that impact health is a false economy,” he added.

Earlier this week PHE figures showed nearly half of salt reduction targets, to be achieved by 2017, had not been met, with salt in burgers, pasta sauces and chips among the worst culprits.

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The industry also failed to meet a 5 per cent voluntary sugar reduction target in five of eight food groups, including biscuits and chocolate, which PHE is targeting as part of a 20 per cent reduction by 2020

The sugar tax raised £150m in its first six months, despite manufacturers cutting sugar to avoid it, and Professor Davies said these funds could be earmarked for health in future rather than school sports schemes.

Calling for “radical action to improve the nation’s health by 2040”, the CMO’s report also tasks government with ensuring new technologies, such as machine-learning tools used to spot eye diseases, are available across the country – not just in big, city hospitals.

Professor Graham MacGregor, chair of both Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, called for “immediate action” on the recommendations to prevent unnecessary deaths.

“We strongly support the call by the chief medical officer for mandated targets for salt, sugar and calories, particularly given the very weak approach of PHE in enforcing the current voluntary programmes,” he said.

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