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 315.

      I also think it is time that airlines started charging for passenger weight. Be a kilo over weight on your luggage and it costs you £20 but then you sit uncomfortably for the next four hours next to an obese person twice you weight and I am paying for the fuel to carry them.

      Guess I am heading for the negatives!

    • rate this

      Comment number 314.

      Tax is a typical politicians' futile attempt to influence consumption. Forget it! The BMI is a very blunt tool but invoked by so many to "prove" (to whom?) they're not obese. Forget that too! Just stand naked in front of your mirror and be honest with yourself about whether you're satisfied with what you see. If not, do something about it. Above all, don't whinge as if you've been force-fed.

    • rate this

      Comment number 313.

      Not sure about diet drinks... I think they are worse than sugary drinks. The body thinks its getting sugar but doesn't and the result is you are left craving sugar and end up eating more. Everything in moderation, it's boring but true.

    • rate this

      Comment number 312.

      So why not just target the perceived 'problem'? The 1st stone overweight is free. For each stone after that, a % increase in your income tax (or % reduction in benefits).

    • rate this

      Comment number 311.

      seriously how does Taxing stuff help at all....

      Drugs are illegal and that doesn't exactly stop people from doing them...

    • rate this

      Comment number 310.

      There seems to be an awful lot of people in this country right now who sit on committees and come up with reports which identify problems we already know about and invariably conclude the answer is to raise taxation. Should they be included in the economically inactive figure?

    • rate this

      Comment number 309.

      "Obese" covers a lot of weight regions, just because you're obese doesn't mean you'll die much younger (ten years) than someone deemed a correct weight. Despite that the free healthcare you'll demand and get does indeed costs an awful lot of money and has to be paid by somebody, and in the UK that's never going to be the obese person footing the bill, when perhaps they could just stop eating.

    • rate this

      Comment number 308.

      UK follows USA in many areas - obesity and over-consumption allied to poverty and ignorance is a clear trend. Here NHS spends almost 10% of its budget tackling obesity issues linked with type 2 diabetes?

      Q: Why should I pay for someone else's lifestyle?
      A: Because we live in a civilised society that tolerates others and cares for the less well-off?

      We'll all need help one day.

    • rate this

      Comment number 307.

      At present 61% of fizzy drinks are sugar free. So what happens after the sugar content in all drinks is reduced to zero?
      Will we then see a campaign to put sugar in our drinks?
      I am not obese & not a burden on society. Maybe I would like some sugar in my drink. It is a matter of personal choice. Stop blaming everyone else for everything you do. Take responsibility for what you do.

    • rate this

      Comment number 306.

      Tax creates revenue - not behavioural change. People still smoke, drive gas guzzlers, and drink.

      If we want behavioural change maybe we ought to ask people who know a little about it. Or is that too radical / not going to raise tax revenues?

    • rate this

      Comment number 305.

      Tax tax as a solution.

    • rate this

      Comment number 304.

      I think people should stop talking about "fizzy drinks" and focus on the full sugar versions that are in sales decline anyway. Its not the bubbles! If soft drinks are making people fat its not the zero calorie/caffeine free version lots of us drink. Doctors and teachers seem incapable of understanding that there's a difference. Answer is sedentary leisure and low cost of non-staple foods.

    • rate this

      Comment number 303.

      Corn syrup and artificial sweeteners rather than 'real' sugar need to be banned.

      Both are subject to health fears and both are protected by massively funded corporate lobbyists.

      It may be more effective to promote the use of honey, but for honey we need bees ... but that's another story.

    • rate this

      Comment number 302.

      Treating the consumption of junk food and fizzy drinks in the same category as smoking is just crazy.
      People need to feel they have made their own choices in life and using these fascist tactics will only force people to rebel.
      I enjoy fizzy drinks and so placing a tax on them will not stop me consuming them, rather ensure I have to pay more for them.

    • rate this

      Comment number 301.

      BMI is an inaccurate, unscientific and discredited measure of obesity, especially for taller people. If we were all (approximately) the same shape, weight would be proportional to to cube of height, not the square as BMI assumes.

      There are other problems with BMI too:

    • rate this

      Comment number 300.

      191. sanjay What has Mr Reagan got to do with us, pray tell?

      Why is the salesman allowed to abuse the common man and why does the common man abuse himself by eating and drinking rubbish? Is the common man too stupid to feed himself a decent diet? Unfortunately, yes. He has to be taught from an early age how to look after himself and the rubbish that is being pushed at the moment has to stop, now

    • rate this

      Comment number 299.

      Surely the default action should be to make these items less visible (in shops and advertising) and less appealing, whilst educating people on the adverse effects of OVER consumption? I am extremely dubious of the notion that taxing people more will have the desired effect and can't be the only one to question why people in healthcare would first call for increased tax, rather than awareness.

    • rate this

      Comment number 298.

      Hows the boxing ban going.

      One persons junk food is another's daily "Bread". the behaviour of industry and consumers will be to ignore or avoid tax without ever addressing the issues around our society's unhealthy life style.

      hours at work
      hours travelling to/from work
      convenience food
      cost of travel

      etc etc etc

      usless idea

    • rate this

      Comment number 297.

      High fructose corn syrup, called glucose-fructose syrup on foods in Britain, is a sweetener we need to ban. Many medical researchers believe it is a major factor in the rise in obesity. Studies have shown it contributes to sugar addiction and to gaining weight around the middle. For me, too much fructose from any source aggravates my heart arrythmia, so I am very keen to see HFCS banned.

    • rate this

      Comment number 296.

      Bring back compulsory physical education in schools for 1 hour every other day, bring back after-school sports clubs, encourage kids to walk to school together, stop serving fast food in schools, run a healthy eating and exercise campaign on T.V for the next 2 years, ban women's magazines/newpsapers from writing stupid articles about fad diets. Taxing fizzy drinks is hardly the root of the issue.


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