Tax fizzy drinks and ban junk food ads, say doctors

A quarter of UK adults is thought to be obese Obesity is the "single greatest" threat to health, say the doctors

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Fizzy drinks should be heavily taxed and junk food adverts banished until after the watershed, doctors have said, in a call for action over obesity.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which represents nearly every doctor in the UK, said ballooning waistlines already constituted a "huge crisis".

Its report said current measures were failing and called for unhealthy foods to be treated more like cigarettes.

Industry leaders said the report added little to the debate on obesity.

The UK is one of the most obese nations in the world with about a quarter of adults classed as obese. That figure is predicted to double by 2050 - a third of primary school leavers are already overweight.

Doctors fear that a rising tide of obesity will pose dire health consequences for the nation.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges is a "united front" of the medical profession from surgeons to GPs and psychiatrists to paediatricians. It says its doctors are seeing the consequences of unhealthy diets every day and that it has never come together on such an issue before.

Its recommendations include:

  • A ban on advertising foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt before 9pm
  • Further taxes on sugary drinks to increase prices by at least 20%
  • A reduction in fast food outlets near schools and leisure centres
  • A £100m budget for interventions such as weight-loss surgery
  • No junk food or vending machines in hospitals, where all food must meet the same nutritional standards as in schools
  • Food labels to include calorie information for children

Prof Terence Stephenson, the chair of the Academy, evoked parallels with the campaign against smoking.

He told the BBC: "That required things like a ban on advertising and a reduction in marketing and the association of smoking with sporting activities - that helped people move away from smoking."

Graph showing obesity rates

He said there was no "silver-bullet" for tackling obesity, instead the entire culture around eating needed to change to make it easier to make healthy decisions.

"I choose what I eat or whether I smoke, what people have told us is they want help to swim with the tide rather than against the current to make the healthy choice the easy one," he said.

While the report makes a raft of recommendations, Prof Stephenson attacked sugary drinks for being "just water and sugar" and lambasted a culture where it was deemed acceptable to drink a litre of fizzy drink at the cinema.

A tax was needed to help "encourage people to drink more healthy drinks," he said.

Start Quote

The root cause is the food environment, it's like telling children going into a sweet shop not to eat sweets.”

End Quote Dr Aseem Malhotra Cardiologist

"Doctors are often accused of playing the nanny state, we didn't hear from a single person who said they liked being overweight, everybody we met wanted help from the state and society.

"If we didn't have things like this we wouldn't have speed limits that save lives, we wouldn't have drink-driving limits that save lives, there's a host of things that society and state does to help us live long, healthy fulfilling lives and we're just suggesting something similar."

But Terry Jones, of industry body the Food and Drink Federation, said the report "seems to be a damp squib and to add little to an important debate".

"The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has presented as its recommendations, a collection of unbalanced ideas apparently heavily influenced by single issue pressure groups," he said.

"FDF had hoped that today's report would have looked seriously at how the food industry and the medical profession would have worked together to tackle obesity, and genuinely brought new insights to bear on how to empower healthier choices and change behaviour to deliver better long-term public health outcomes. This report fails to do that."

The British Soft Drinks Association rejected the idea that a tax on soft drinks, which it said contributed "just 2%" of the total calories in the average diet, would address a problem "which is about overall diet and levels of activity".


Dr Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist who helped draw up the report, has noticed more and more of his patients are overweight and suffering from obesity related illnesses.

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    He told the BBC: "The root cause is the food environment, it's like telling children going into a sweet shop not to eat sweets.

    "There's nothing wrong with the occasional treat, but those treats have insinuated themselves into the daily diets of most people.

    "There's an oversupply of cheap sugary foods, clearly regulation is needed."

    The Department of Health in England has a set up voluntary agreements with the food industry as part of its responsibility deal.

    Health minister Lord Howe welcomed the report and said he wanted to see "businesses intensifying their efforts as well".

    He said: "To tackle the rising tide of obesity the industry, healthcare professionals, government and individuals all need to continue working together to get results, which is why our Call to Action sets out how important this is.

    "Government is already helping people make healthier choices by working with industry to reduce fat, salt and sugar in foods and by giving children and families advice on how to eat well, get active, and live longer through Change4Life."


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    • rate this

      Comment number 55.

      Look at the relative costs of these "unhealthy foods" and any corresponding or alternative "healthy ones", we can see that many people not on a large salary could struggle unless good teaching and, eg, subsidized healthy options are made available for all (and it is the poorest who suffer most obsesity). It cannot be correct, for instance, for sugar-laden drinks to cost less than bottled water.

    • rate this

      Comment number 54.

      "Make it easier to make healthy decisions" = ban unhealthy ones

      "Nearly every doctor in the UK" = A few extremists claiming to represent an entire profession

      "Everybody we met wanted help from the state" = we did not ask the general public for fear of getting the "wrong" answer

      This is not news. It is the same message from the same authoritarians

    • rate this

      Comment number 53.

      I'm all for taxing unhealthful foods as long as every penny goes to subsidise healthful foods. If fresh fruit, veg and unprocessed meat was cheaper to buy I'm sure more people would eat it. People eat as cheaply as they can and at this time that means sugar filled overly processed junk food.

    • rate this

      Comment number 52.

      If this does get the go ahead, why not use any revenue generated to subsidise healthy foods, obviously including fresh fruit and veg? Or is this far too easy?

    • rate this

      Comment number 51.

      Just because it costs more won't stop people buying it....

    • rate this

      Comment number 50.

      Its hardly right to tax all drinks! No point punishing the whole nation, when only a few people are the problem. Its peoples choice what they eat and drink. The NHS helping people lose weight is stupid. They should not get weight loss treat meant for Free! People should get advice and government should regulate and test what can be made in to drinks.

    • rate this

      Comment number 49.

      Like the meat LIES scandal, sort the source then the high levels of sugar wont be in the drinks.

    • rate this

      Comment number 48.

      I was going to make a contribution to this discussion but it has not been ratified by the State and I'm being taxed for thinking and writing so best leave it there.

    • rate this

      Comment number 47.

      Children need minimum one hour PE lessen every day . Somehow the government does not want to invest in this. Interestingly they only want to raise taxes. I wonder why?

    • rate this

      Comment number 46.

      There is now considerable evidence that hyperpalatable foods, i.e. those containing high levels of sugar/salt/fat, can be addictive. (Just search the word `hyperpalatable' to see what I mean!) Therefore, it seems reasonable to impose similar measures to control their use as we do for alcohol or nicotine.

      Imagine if we could make the same progress against obesity as we have against lung cancer!

    • rate this

      Comment number 45.

      Good report and some good suggestions as far as I can see. Not sure it goes far enough, but doing nothing really isn't an option unless those who advocate this are happy to see our country have huge health problems in future generations. I know the BBC have to be impartial, but I wouldn't take any notice of the Soft Drinks Association - turkeys wouldn't vote for xmas if you asked them would they?

    • rate this

      Comment number 44.

      A more effecrive way would be for annual health checks for children up to the age of eighteen to put them on the right path.

    • rate this

      Comment number 43.

      if doctors were so worried about people then why did they opt out of doing 24hr cover, leaving us with the lottery of out of hours care ?

    • rate this

      Comment number 42.

      So this week it's fizzy drinks last month alcohol,next month caffeine. Following month tax the disabled ,elderly anyone else you can think of. At this rate tories won't have voters other than the super healthy or the green voters.

    • rate this

      Comment number 41.

      People are already struggling enough with food bills without taxing "junk" food. If this is ever brought in, the government could show it's not just a money making scheme by using the revenue to reduce the price of fruits & veg perhaps? Many people buy what they can afford to eat, and would love to eat healthier foods if they could afford it.

    • rate this

      Comment number 40.

      I am fed up of fat unhealthy people who make no effort to improve their own health by using the vast amount of free advice and tax funded support to do so. I pay through my taxes for overweight idle people to gorge themselves on crap and then I pay for their healthcare when they get diabetes, heart conditions and need constant medical care. Your health is YOUR responsibility. Quit making excuses.

    • rate this

      Comment number 39.

      How about having your income tax rate set by either your BMI or even better your percentage of body fat. That way their would be a focus for those overweight people to loose fat and get healthy.

    • rate this

      Comment number 38.

      Has Cameron got a special team that looks at taxing everything more and more ? better keep breathing quick !!!!

    • rate this

      Comment number 37.

      You can't impose good parenting.

    • rate this

      Comment number 36.

      Why has this article even been written - everyone can choose whether or not a fizzy drink does contain sugar. Absurd suggestion to tax everything possibly harmful.


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