Jamie Oliver's idea of a sugar tax sounds good, but won't have any practical effect

Plus: films that are so tasteful they're hopelessly dull

Janet Street-Porter
Friday 04 September 2015 18:22
Jamie Oliver: 'I've seen first-hand the devastating effects that a poor diet and too much sugar is having on children's futures'
Jamie Oliver: 'I've seen first-hand the devastating effects that a poor diet and too much sugar is having on children's futures'

Jamie Oliver is an excellent crusader, a man who never lets practicality or fine detail get in the way of a passionate argument. He’s 100 per cent right: the amount of sugar we eat is way out of control and damaging our health. But is a tax the best way to curb our addiction?

In his latest television campaign, Jamie’s Sugar Rush, Oliver showed some shocking images – small children having their rotten teeth removed, a mum bottle-feeding her baby Coca-Cola, an obese 13-year-old schoolgirl with type 2 diabetes faced with testing her blood sugar levels every few hours. Then Jamie undermined his own argument by filming at a primary school where the kids had all learnt to cook and grow their own food; not a fatty in sight. Those youngsters were eating healthily as a result of education, without the imposition of a tax on sugary drinks.

Jamie’s goal – to get the Government to impose a tax of 20 per cent on fizzy drinks – is widely supported by health professionals. He wants the money raised from the levy (estimated at £1bn a year, which sounds optimistic to me) to go directly to schools to fund lessons about cooking and nutrition.

The food industry did not emerge from this programme particularly well. One spokesperson, when confronted with the facts about the damage sugar is doing to the nation’s health, grudgingly admitted, “They’re the experts so we have to listen to them,” and trotted out the old chestnut about consumer choice being the best way forward.

The Government’s health advisers would like us to cut our sugar consumption from about 40 teaspoons a day to fewer than seven – which will require a massive lifestyle change. Sugar consumption has already started to decline slightly as the public switches to healthier alternatives by choice, but, as Oliver showed, sugar is added to everything from bread to stir-fry sauces. It’s a hidden killer, present in almost everything we eat.

However, increased taxes on smoking and drinking do nothing to alter consumption. Fewer people smoke now because it’s seen as naff. Young people drink less alcohol for the same reason. Changing our attitude to fizzy drinks will require the same shift in perception. We need some clever thinking about sugar, not a single tax.

Removing fast-food outlets and drink vending machines from hospitals and schools is a start. Banning the licensing of fast-food outlets within a mile of schools is another. Refusing to accept sponsorship from fizzy drink companies for sporting events is another still – how can we be serious about the nation’s health when Coke sponsored the Olympics?

I have never drunk Coca-Cola or eaten a Big Mac – my body is a temple and I don’t want to pollute it. Sadly, carrying a can of watery sugar has been cleverly marketed as part of everyday life, something as natural and normal as drinking water from the tap. It’s that perception we need to attack. The act of drinking sugar should be seen as something disgusting and damaging.

A tax is not a bad idea, but it’s not the solution to a problem which requires a more creative approach. We watch The Great British Bake Off in our millions. What’s that about, if not the communal worship of sugar?

Great actors, directing, script – but deadly dull

A new British film, 45 Years, stars two fine actors, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, and is about a week leading up to couple’s 45th wedding anniversary.

Filmed in the bleak Norfolk countryside, it chronicles the nuances of their childless marriage in painstaking detail. As someone who has never managed to stay married for more than seven years, I was always going to find this subject matter a challenge.

She has a stiff upper lip, a no-nonsense way of coping. He is so absent-minded that for the first 30 minutes of the film I thought he was suffering from the early stages of dementia.

The problem with Andrew Haigh’s film is that it’s too bloody tasteful. Is it crass to say I go to the cinema to be transported to another, more interesting place?

I spent three hours in the wonderful cinema museum in Turin this summer, one of the most inspiring temples of culture you could imagine, housed in a spectacular 19th-century former synagogue. I lay on a red chaise longue watching Italian neo-realist cinema stars such as Anita Ekberg and Anna Magnani. The ageing roué in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is my kind of pensioner – up for anything, especially if it involves a party and a spot of dancing. In contrast, 45 Years is deeply worthy; in other words, it’s mind-numbingly dull.

Police ‘sympathy cuts’ leave some of us poorly served

Faced with cuts, the police are mounting a carefully orchestrated PR campaign to invoke public sympathy. Each week, we’re told of another service they won’t be able to provide as they try to work with up to 40 per cent less funding and 7,000 fewer staff.

West Midlands police revealed last week that they attend some emergencies in Corsa hatchbacks without sirens. These were bought as a cheap alternative to Vauxhall Astras and were intended to be used for non-urgent neighbourhood policing. Without sirens, the cars can’t exceed the speed limit.

Leicestershire police announced they’re looking at saving money by fully investigating burglaries at even-numbered houses only. A south London force says it has been sending out officers to investigate incidents using public transport. Essex police say they can only respond to half of their daily quota of 1,200 calls, and called bobbies on the beat “a luxury”. Some forces in rural areas are using volunteers in hi-vis jackets to spot potential crimes.

All these piecemeal savings ought to be rationalised and directed by a central figure of authority. It seems bizarre that there’s not one strategy to prioritise essential services. Instead, the public – who expect a guaranteed standard of policing no matter where they live, because we all pay tax – are getting a widely different service, dependent on each regional chief’s personal whims.

Now it seems that seven police forces in England and Wales have dished out cars with blue lights and sirens to civilian members of their staff, from IT experts to finance bosses and heads of HR. These people do not have the authority to attend to emergencies, so we can only assume they were given these cars as perks.

You wouldn’t get the Proms from a commercial channel

The Proms are drawing to a close, and evenings won’t be the same. These concerts are my summer soundtrack, introducing me to composers and music I’d normally shun.

There’s no better example than Grange Park Opera’s stunning production of the 1964 Broadway hit Fiddler on the Roof with Bryn Terfel, performed at the Proms at the end of July in front of a wildly enthusiastic audience and me singing along at home.

Last week saw the young Russian pianist Igor Levit give a spellbinding performance of a Mozart piano concerto – his almost hesitant, soft touch demanding total concentration on the part of the audience.

The Proms are the best argument yet for the retention of the BBC licence fee, for me at least.

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