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 195.

      When doctors and parliament start to follow their own advice, I'll start to take them seriously.

      Until then, I think I'll be looking after my own health.

    • Comment number 194.

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

    • rate this

      Comment number 193.

      If the government were that concerned they would go to the source of the problem & ban the company's which make this stuff.
      But no they penalise the end user you & me which tells us that the objective is to raise tax not look after peoples health. The government would be quite happy if we all expired once our usefulness at Poundland or whatever other grindstone applies has ended.
      It's all bull...

    • rate this

      Comment number 192.

      This shouldn't need taxing, It should work in the same way pubs do, if you see a drunk person, stop serving them and send them home.
      So, in these fast food restaurants, if you see a fat person trundle in, turn them down politely and ask them to leave.
      It may seem harsh, but it's helping them to help themselves.

    • rate this

      Comment number 191.

      Yes too much sugar is bad but not as bad as Aspartame it is a poison which is most sugar free drinks that has many different case histories to relate of children suffering seizures and other neurological disturbances talking about a plague of neurological diseases directly caused by the use of this deadly poison this was an banned sweeter until reagan come to power just check it out yourself

    • rate this

      Comment number 190.

      Doctors who thought up this crazy insane idea should be heavily taxed!! Don't we pay enough tax as it is? Take fuel. I go to the garage so that I can pay the government some taxes and as a bonus I get a little fuel for my troubles. I paid my taxes my entire working life, and now I am a pensioner, my pensions are taxed. Except for exempt foods everything I buy is taxed. ENOUGH!!

    • rate this

      Comment number 189.

      @175. coffee rider But are you prepared to apply that fully and fairly? Chose to play football and injure yourself? Oh well that's your own fault, no treatment.
      DIY? Tough, did it yourself!

    • rate this

      Comment number 188.

      There is a simple balance to be achieved - "calories in vs calories out".The government and the health lobby should be concentrating on the "calories out" side of the equation. What investment is going into sport in schools? How important is physical activity in the curriculum? What subsidies could be brought in to reduce the cost of gyms and leisure centres etc?

    • rate this

      Comment number 187.

      How about doctors stick to medicine, give their medical recommendations and leave it up to economists, psychologists and sociologists (OK, and politicians) to determine the most effective way to impact consumer behaviour.

    • rate this

      Comment number 186.

      Building a country using only tax as a tool (about as smart as trying to build a house using nothing but a hammer...)
      so, let me get this right - tax is viewed as a tool for government to get people to avoid certain things in the UK (eg soft drinks)?
      No wonder successful people/companies move their revenue and profits off-shore.
      but then again, that's the objective, right?

    • rate this

      Comment number 185.

      What Neanderthals.

      We live in a democracy where freedom to do what we want (within legal boundaries of course) is a well earned gift.

      If I want to fill my face with crap food I'll do so. I'm aware of the consequences, and as in the nature of freedom you have the right to remind me of said consequences, but you do not have the right to penalise me for my choices no matter the retributions.

    • rate this

      Comment number 184.

      It is the same old answer to everything, if in doubt TAX it, it is not more taxation we need, it is better education and lower prices for healthier foods is what we need. Now my BMI is normal, at my right weight etc I eat as healthily as I can, but some weeks it can be a struggle, especially when supermarkets and local shops increase prices from one week to the next for one reason or the other.

    • rate this

      Comment number 183.

      Taxing fizzy drinks is NOT the answer. Its part of a bigger problem where govt, business, and society refuses to look at, or more accurately wants to 'overlook' the consequences of its actions. Lets face it, the government is scared to tackle coca cola, scared to tell the people they are fat lardy arses, and so are their kids, and scared to outlaw or stigmatise owning shares in tate n lyle. A.M

    • rate this

      Comment number 182.

      Mark Agreed, but its not the rubbish that people eat, its the quantity. Vast portions, continuous eating and snacking and very little exercise other than shambling from one shop to another. I don't believe that all of them have a medical condition, its more a question of greed and laziness together with junk food with its origins in the USA.

    • rate this

      Comment number 181.

      If I understand these doctors. Ive never smoked don't drink alcohol I'm pretty active but I'm overweight so I'm more unhealthy than someone who smokes, drinks a lot, takes no exercise just because I'm a bit overweight

    • rate this

      Comment number 180.

      One of the worst things is the trend for "low fat foods".
      Next time you are in the shops, look at the sugar content and compare these to "normal" food. Some "healthy options" are 33% sugar.

      But one thing that this report doesn't mention is that eating fat doesn't make you fat.

    • rate this

      Comment number 179.

      The Government could just insist on reducing the width of supermarket doorways........

    • rate this

      Comment number 178.

      Here's my view (a thin doctor):

      1.) Calculations on 'cost' of obesity are disingenuous, ignoring 'savings' from people dying earlier & not developing other diseases, especially dementia.
      2.) Obsession with ever-increasing life expectancy is misplaced (esp in view of dementia).
      3.) If people are aware of risks & choose to 'live fat, die young', so be it. There is no moral 'wrong' in obesity.

    • rate this

      Comment number 177.

      Why don't they include Carbohydrates on the front of food packaging alongside sugar, fat and saturated fat... it's as important as the others yet seems to be ignored.

    • rate this

      Comment number 176.

      How about we lift the liberalist embargo about telling children they are fat? If being fat was made to be socially unappealing then I am sure people would stop and take a look at themselves. We are fat because we think it is OK to be fat.


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