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 235.

      Ah, fizzy drinks. Phew, that's okay. Must get a new pair of glasses.

    • rate this

      Comment number 234.

      Why not tax all food, even bread as eating too much of any foodstuffs is unhealthy. The problem is lazyness and over reliance on transport. Why not have a 5% vat on healthier food/essentials and 20-25% on high fat/calorie foods and use the money generated to subsidise bicycles and gym membership.

    • rate this

      Comment number 233.

      The sugar – cigarette analogy is interesting. If the health impact of sugar and cigarettes is similar and the industry is aware of it then obese people may have a cause to take the industry to court. It would certainly be worth a test case.
      Sugar is no stranger to a public boycott for the benefit of society. We did it before (to abolish slavery) we could do it again to reduce obesity!

    • rate this

      Comment number 232.

      They'd do better by introducing compulsory school meals, for children. What does Lewis Jones, think?

    • rate this

      Comment number 231.

      >zero calorie drinks which taste little different than their sugary >counterparts.

      Maybe you can't taste the different, but for many they taste HUGELY different. And for some (like me) most of the artificial sweeteners cause health problems in themselves.

    • rate this

      Comment number 230.

      I think, the BBC should increase it's cookery/food&drink programming..I'm sure they could fit another in their schedule, call it 'Hairy Nigel's Celebrity Pie Making on Ice' Or do they already have one called that? If so just add 'Master' or 'Extreme', could even have an 'Apprentice' version where Lordsiralan could say 'You're fried' instead of fired.

    • rate this

      Comment number 229.

      Taxes so far has not resolved any of the issues they were intended. We have seen this before in various areas i.e. increase tax on cigarettes, alcohol and even petrol in order to reduce usage. End result was higher taxes in general but nothing else. Why should it work this time ?

    • rate this

      Comment number 228.

      using the BMI calculator, I was told I was of equivalent weight to someone from the Congo- I am 11.5 stone! Tweaking it until the line was raised to the 'norm' I had to increase my weight to 20 stone!!! Is this sending out the right message?

    • rate this

      Comment number 227.

      Went to my local Hospital last week for some tests.
      I have never seen so many obese Doctors and nurses..
      The word Hippocrates comes to mind!

    • rate this

      Comment number 226.

      Doctors are completely sticking to their job of helping us to be healthy - just as Terry Jones is sticking to his remit of keeping profits high. His comments are like the cigarette manufacturers' in the 60s.

      Obesity is linked to cancer as well as the obvious problems. The culture needs to change - much cheap food is filled with fat, sugar and salt to make it palatable as well as profitable.

    • Comment number 225.

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

    • rate this

      Comment number 224.

      139 funythat brilliant idea!

    • rate this

      Comment number 223.

      When Eric Pickles weighs in at 11st the goverment and their friends in the medical proffesion can lecture me about what I eat or drink.

    • rate this

      Comment number 222.

      It's not necessarily about what one eats but how much one eats. If I ate 3000 calories of salad every day I'd put on weight.

    • rate this

      Comment number 221.

      Its called personal responsibility & personal choice I'm a fit healthy person because I know if your going to eat/drink junk food & fizzy drinks then you need to exercise to burn off those extra calories. I feel like a minority in a growing trend in peoples health & feel like I'm being unfairly punished or at least my wallet is because people cannot take personal responsibility for their actions

    • rate this

      Comment number 220.

      typical... 26.1% are obese so the other 73.9% who are not have to pay tax on their food and drink... come on Doc's really... don't you think people who are obese because of how they eat as much as what they eat... skipping breakfast eating and no exercise.. people who are obese look in the mirror if they dare and dam well DO something about it !

    • rate this

      Comment number 219.

      Why fizzy drinks? Why not smoothies or juice which is also high in sugar.
      Alcohol? Crisps? Biscuits? Chocolate?

      When a family sit down with a packet of biscuits and family size chocolate bar, after a ready meal dinner and pudding, surely the point is to educate, not just slap a tax on.

    • rate this

      Comment number 218.

      Nanny state in action. The latest science shows that butter is healthier for your heart than margarine, yet I bet there were calls to "tax butter to make everyone healthier. I bet they would not refund all that tax had there been one. I'm pretty sure we'll find sugar healthier than sweeteners. In any case there is already enormous social pressure on everyone to be skinny. Let people freely choose!

    • rate this

      Comment number 217.

      @166 Qutting smoking is a bright idea, as is avoiding foods high in saturated fat. The doctors and the government didn't make you obese. Stop blaming society and do something about it yourself.

    • rate this

      Comment number 216.

      With the exception of some manufactured products like trans fats, no foods are unhealthy in their own right.

      It's about how much and how you combine them in a healthy, balanced diet.

      Eating in the evening and skipping breakfast primes our bodies to lay down fat.

      An empty stomach at lunch time makes us seek out fatty foods.

      Taxes will not make us eat breakfast!


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