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 1435.

      Fizzy drinks aren't the main problem. Cheap processed foods are high in saturated fats and sugar, these are the main problem. How often do you see fat people buying there Pizza and ordering a DIET Coke, it's not the coke that's making them fat it's the pizza. A tax on fizzy drinks will make no difference to the obesity problem.

    • rate this

      Comment number 1434.

      A £100m budget for interventions such as weight-loss surgery ? this money would be better spent on summer camps for over-weight children to learn about diet and exercise. If they can't control their weight themselves then they should be sent to summer camps to learn!

    • rate this

      Comment number 1433.

      The 26.1% adult obesity rate statistic is biased. The OECD website states that the calculation is derived from measures taken during health examinations. Logically obese people are more likely to have health problems and therefore more likely to attend a health examination, this will give a incorrectly high estimate of obesity rates.

    • rate this

      Comment number 1432.

      Don't make the sugary drinks more expensive, just sell them at the top of tall buildings that lack lifts.

    • rate this

      Comment number 1431.

      There are two problems here, while a tax on this stuff may limit peoples freedoms (therefore being iliberal), the increase in health/weight related problems from all these fizzy drinks may end up costing us more anyway through having to increase our NI contributions. It looks like one way or another we're going to end up paying more unless people can take responsibility for themselves

    • rate this

      Comment number 1430.

      There is no one single silver-bullet solution.

      Just taxing sugary drinks (which is what article is actually about) and junk food won't solve it. Make the healthy stuff more affordable.

      Make exercise more affordable too. Cheaper gyms. Exercise. Tax breaks for those who can show healthy lifestyle.

      Education about healthy living.

      Note: any difference won't be seen for at least 10 years...

    • rate this

      Comment number 1429.

      HilaryJ: which is just what I do. It evades me why people have to buy water? Water from the tap is absolutely fine and will quench your thirst. A gallon of hideous gassy stuff will bloat your stomach, make you feel hungry and thirsty again in the space of a few minutes and back in the vicious cycle. A note: the "obese" folks "outing" themselves on here show a very singular "pride" in it. Bizarre!

    • rate this

      Comment number 1428.

      Why not make these unhealthy foods illegal and then prosecute people who make themselves fat and ill because they eat the wrong foods. After all, making some drugs illegal, and then prosecution and imprisonment of drug addicts works for drugs!

    • rate this

      Comment number 1427.

      High tax should be on things thats are bad for you, because in the end you're going to need the NHS to pick you up and treat you for being overweigh / smoking etc.
      It's okay saying it's my life and i'll eat and do what i want but not when it's others taxpayers thats going to pick up the bill for you when you need help. i'd rather my tax went to help those with a proper need

    • rate this

      Comment number 1426.

      In a free society, I have the right to:
      Eat drink and smoke what ever I want.
      Make free choices as a free person.
      Enjoy, or pay for the consequences of my choices, this encourages me to make more better choices than poor ones.

      You have the right to:
      Not have your wages taken to pay for my choices.
      To not be arbitrarily forced to pay more for my product of choice because a union says so.

    • rate this

      Comment number 1425.

      I weigh 80kg about normal for my height. When flying, I still pay the same and have the same baggage allowance as someone weighing 160kg. Even though it takes twice as much fuel to transport me as them.

      The airlines should fly people and their luggage, with them paying per kilo to fly on an exponential price curve. This would be much fairer everyone paying the same.

    • rate this

      Comment number 1424.

      Like one or two others on here, I think that sports where people regularly get injured should be taxed more, as they are a drain on the national health.... !!!!

    • rate this

      Comment number 1423.

      Nice to see that bigotry and sweeping generalisation is ruling the debate with the anti-fat brigade leading the charge. Not all obese people are there through choice. Easy though to pick on the fat kid isn't it? What will the cost of the next generation of anorexic's be to the NHS? Tax forbidden foods if you must be ban media that practically encourages eating disorders. Get some balance.

    • rate this

      Comment number 1422.

      Build a decent transport infrastructure based on walking, cycling and public transport so that fewer have to rely on cars to get everywhere. Childhood obesity as as much to do with roads being too dangerous to cycle on or even cross on foot!
      We have failed two generations by giving the Car and the Food industry free reign to make their bank accounts and our bellies fat. Now what?

    • rate this

      Comment number 1421.

      I am very fit. I swim 2.5 miles 3 mornings a week before work, cycle circa 100 miles a week and visit the gym 3 times a week (1.5 hours per session). I have very little visible fat showing.
      Guess what? I am also one of these people who are considered as clinically obese.
      We need to move away from the BMI method of determining what is obese and what is not.

    • rate this

      Comment number 1420.

      Further to my last (1375) I should add I am fat (on the borderline of clinically obese officially), I don't drink fizzy drinks, I eat all the right foods but just too much of them, and I don't exercise enough. Taxing fizzy drinks won't help me or many others like me. I fear this idea is another example of Nanny State thinking gone mad.

    • rate this

      Comment number 1419.

      It is entirely upto the individual as to their eating habits. If you want to eat healthily you do, if your not bothered about the junk you consume then you continue to consume it. Nobody or any government initiatives will change the individuals eating habits except the individual.

    • rate this

      Comment number 1418.

      The problem with the free choice argument for sugar, alcohol and cigarettes is that addiction inherently denies free choice. Someone who is chemically dependant on cigarettes does not have a free choice over whether they smoke or not. The same is probably true of sugar.

    • rate this

      Comment number 1417.

      So if these Doctors get their tax of soft drinks what will be next, and after that, and after that? These people will only be happy when everyone is super glued to exercise bikes getting force feed celery sticks!!

    • rate this

      Comment number 1416.

      Diabesity (T2 diabetics, 90% of whom are overweight) costs the NHS 25 billion pa.-about a quarter of its funding. ALL overweight T2 diabetics can arrest their diabetes by losing weight. Regardless of whether they originally got fat because of genes medical conditions or medications. Its the fat that causes the insulin resistance. Thus their "cure" is their own decision.Apart from existing damage.


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