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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    • Comment number 75.

      This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

    • rate this

      Comment number 74.

      Trying to use taxation as a method of improving health is a very blunt weapon. In all honesty it is an admission that successive governments have failed to educate the populus. If everyone truly understood the effects of a poor diet then they would choose better for themselves in the first place.

    • rate this

      Comment number 73.

      Why not just have a BMI Tax - if doctors want so much control then they sign off your Tax Return simple - more FAT more TAX. How did Gordon Brown miss this one. While you are at it have an UGLY TAX, A NUMPTY TAX, A LIE TAX, A FOOTBALL SUPPORTER TAX - we will soon be out of debt the possibilities are endless!

    • rate this

      Comment number 72.

      Eat healthily and live to be 100 (coping with arthritis, failing senses and intellect etc, and seeing your assets diverted into the care system which will end up looking after you).

      "Jobs for the boys" in healthcare eh?

    • rate this

      Comment number 71.

      Maybe banning companies such as Cadbury's and McDonlads and Coco-Cola from advertising on the World's BIGGEST sporting events?

      Taxes may help, but most people who drink fizzy drinks will see it as an opportunity for the government to get easy money from the tax payers as loads of fizzy drinks are consumed. You can't blame ALL obesity cases on fizzy drink, this hopefully is a stepping stone.

    • rate this

      Comment number 70.

      @ Max #40
      Get your facts correct, Diabetes is not caused solely by eating unhealthily. I am Diabetic and have eaten relatively healthily all my life. I wasnt overweight, and I still weigh in well.
      Healthy eating these days is just way too expensive - the sooner supermarkets see that healthy doesnt equal expensive - the better

    • rate this

      Comment number 69.

      What utter rubbish, the answer is to tax everything yet again. In a bit there will be a tax on breathing.

    • rate this

      Comment number 68.

      I have type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition that is NOT caused by diet or lifestyle. Sugary coke is a fantastic, easily available hypo treatment which works fast when my sugar levels are too low. Like a lot of things it's a useful product when used SENSIBLY. Better surely to tax overly processed fatty foods, subsidise fresh fruit & veg & help people be more active?

    • rate this

      Comment number 67.

      Don't tax otherwise the obese will have the same excuse as the smokers for using vast NHS resources. Best thing is not to treat on the NHS as it is largely a self inflicted condition. These days we seem to be flying in the face of the process of natural selection.

    • rate this

      Comment number 66.

      Government on another fund raiser then.
      I think now fags are eight quid a packet and that particular horse/cow has been flogged to death, opening a new revenue stream seems to make perfect sense to me.

    • rate this

      Comment number 65.

      Perhap these docs would like to explain how someone walks 20+ miles a week,does not eat too much and steers clear of fizzy drinks still goes down with a blocked heart artery.

      And note its not the government saying this

    • Comment number 64.

      This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

    • rate this

      Comment number 63.

      The main problem with taxing fizzy drinks is the huge varient on prices in the UK already. I think taxing it would have little effect.

      In some shops, I can purchase a can of coke for 35p, in others it can cost 70p, and in some it can cost over £1.50; and that is not counting the cost savings of multibuy. People will still buy it!

    • rate this

      Comment number 62.

      I hate it when things are reported as 'Doctors say...'

      I'm a doctor and I don't agree with this. I think people have the right to make there own decisions.

    • rate this

      Comment number 61.

      You Brits do Love your Nanny to tell you what to do....

    • rate this

      Comment number 60.

      Obesity is caused by a number of factors but really it comes down to the convenience of modern society.
      Food is cheap and abundant, and we are a species who evolved when food was scarce. This means we have a desire to seek out calorie dense foods.
      Couple this with the fact that for most people there is little reason to ever do any exercise and it's clear why obesity is rising.

    • rate this

      Comment number 59.

      if the government TAXED US ALL, LESS and TAXED producers MORE, we'd all have more money to buy less of the 'rubbish' and more healthier food instead.

      alternatively directly tax the advertising agencies, such as WPP? who make astonishing profits and until recently avoided corporation taxes basing themselves outside the uk

    • rate this

      Comment number 58.

      How about a ban on the number of takeaways that are allowed in small towns and villages? In my nearest town there are four indians, two chinese, one kebab house, one pizza and one burger joint. Why? There is no need for it, another chippy was going to open a while back which would have made two in total and there was uproar,but we allow other takeaways serving rubbish, why no protest for these....

    • rate this

      Comment number 57.

      22.Tim Deegan "Those who think its interfering: well have you got any better ideas?"

      I have a better idea, stop badgering people and let them live their lives how they want. People know smoking, drinking, eating junk and such are bad for them so why not let them get on with it? It's certain the tax on each of these food stuff raise more than what is spent on the NHS as a whole.

    • rate this

      Comment number 56.

      Same old advice again ... if it's bad for it!


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