18 Feb 2013

Call for fizzy drinks tax to slim down ‘fat man of Europe’

Britain is too fat and it is getting fatter – and now is the time to act, warns an influential medical group. But will their suggested measures to tackle the “obesity crisis” work?

It is an “obesity crisis”, and it must be tackled before it is too late. That is the view of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC), which has published a list of recommendations to try and deal with the UK’s expanding waistline.

The AMRC – which represents almost all of the UK’s 220,000 doctors – suggests that fizzy drinks should be taxed, fast food outlets near schools should be limited and new parents should be given advice on how to feed their children properly, among other ideas.

In the report, the AMRC said doctors across the medical profession are united in their concerns and criticised the present and previous governments for their ineffective attempts to tackle the problem.

One in four adults in the UK is obese, with the number expected to double by 2050.

“They [doctors] are united in seeing the epidemic of obesity as the greatest public health crisis facing the UK,” said Professor Terence Stephenson, chair of the AMRC.

“This report does not pretend to have all the answers. But it does say we need together to do more, starting right now, before the problem becomes worse and the NHS can no longer cope.”

The report lists diabetes, heart disease and cancer as some of the key diseases linked to obesity and sets out 10 recommendations to try to deal with the problem.

The prescription for the 'fat man of Europe' includes:
- Taxes of 20 per cent on sugary drinks for at least a year
- Banning the advertising of foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt before 9pm
- Councils having the power to limit the number of fast food outlets near schools and leisure centres
- NHS staff to talk to overweight patients at every appointment about their eating and exercise habits
- Advice for new parents on how to feed their children properly
- All schools to serve healthy food in their kitchens
- A ban on junk food an vending machines in hospital premises and hospitals to apply the same nutritional standards for patients as those in state schools in England
- £300m to be spent over the next three years on weight management programmes
- More surgery for the severely obese, to help those at risk of dying
- Food labels to include calorie information for children

The report is not the first time there has been a drive to tackle obesity. In 2011, the government launched its “Call to Action” strategy which called on individuals to be responsible for their own calorie intake.

The coalition wanted to cut 5 billion calories, or 16.9 million cheeseburgers, off the nation’s daily diet – but at the time, campaigners said the strategy would not be enough.

In response to the AMRC report today, the Department of Health said it recognised the scale of the challenge.

How can we tackle the obesity crisis? (Getty)

“There is no single answer to the obesity problem. It is up to everyone – government, industry, health professionals and voluntary groups, as well as individuals themselves – to work jointly to promote healthy eating and healthy lifestyles.

“There are already a large number of initiatives under way to help do this, including the government’s responsibility deal with industry; the Change4Life programme; NHS health checks; and the child measurement programme in schools.

“We are substantially increasing the health visitor workforce whose role will include advice to mothers on nutritionally balanced meals and how to prepare them.”

Will the prescription cure the patient? 
One of the measures suggested by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC) which has grabbed headlines is the idea of a tax on fizzy drinks.

It's not the first time this has been suggested - earlier this year a report described sugary drinks as "mini-health timebombs". In France, there's already a tax on fizzy drinks which adds just over a penny to a can of Coca Cola or Fanta, and New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned super-sized soft drinks last year.

But the government has said in the past it is not planning on legislating against junk food. The soft drinks industry has also hit back. Garry Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, said soft drinks contributed just 2 per cent of the total calories in the average diet.

Food and drink or "fat taxes", as they are known, are controversial and often lead to "nanny state" accusations. But some evidence suggests they may not even help. Denmark was the first country in the world to implement at saturated fat tax in 2011. But then, at the end of last year, the tax was cancelled.

It was costly, hit foods which weren't all bad - such as cheese, which provides calcium and protein - and encouraged cross-border shopping. Copenhagen University's Professor Arne Astrup told Channel 4 News that many people just ate something else which was bad for them instead.

"Really the criticism was, as an isolated intervention, you couldn't be certain that something positive would come from it," he said.

However, he is more encouraged by the potential benefits of a fizzy drink tax in the UK.

"You cannot point at one good thing about fizzy drinks in terms of health. It simply adds calories. So there is more scientific evidence it could make a contribution," he said, adding that exercise and a good diet across the board - particularly for children and pregnant mothers - were also important factors.