SPECIAL REPORT: Sugar Tax Considered as Britain Faces Rising Obesity And Diabetes Risks

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25 Jan 2016 --- Sugar intake has been an important topic for years, but 2015 was yet another major year with anti-sugar movements increasing. In March 2015, a new WHO guideline recommended adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits, according to the body.

The recommendations have drawn criticism from industry, but nowhere near as much controversy as the debate about implementing a sugar tax, which continues to roll on in the UK. In October 2015, the UK’s Department of Health was presented with a petition signed by over 140,000 people in support of sugar a tax, which was recently promoted by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. While the British Department of Health (DoH) was quick to stress that it has no plans to introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, public pressure is likely to follow. Many industry specialists support a tax on sugary foods as a method to curb obesity, however failed schemes in Mexico, Denmark and France, illustrate the complexity of the issue. The argument is that many consumers revert to cheaper versions of sugary foods and drinks but continue to consume them in large amounts.
 
There has been growing concern about the damaging impact of sugar on health, mainly surrounding Type-2 diabetes and obesity. Sugar has been blamed for providing "empty calories" because it has no nutritional benefits.  The limits apply to all sugars added to food, as well as sugar naturally present in syrups and honey. To put this in context, a typical can of fizzy drink contains about eight or nine teaspoons of sugar.
 
Draft EU rules that would allow baby foods to continue to contain up to three times more sugar than is recommended by the World Health Organization were vetoed by the European Parliament last week, as they fail to protect infants and young children against obesity. The plans would allow baby food to contain more than three times more sugar than recommended by the WHO. MEPs instead stated that EU sugar content limits should match the current WHO recommendations.
 
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the government would come up with a "fully worked-up program" to tackle obesity, with details announced later this year. Cameron has threatened to hike prices on sugar-filled pop as the country faces a diabetes crisis and by introducing a sugar tax and could see the price of fizzy drinks rise by 30 pence ($0.43). 
 
The NHS is looking to impose its own “sugar tax” in England which may be introduced by 2020. In order to tackle the growing problem of obesity, Chief Executive Simon Stevens is proposing a 20% tax on all sugary drinks and foods in NHS cafes. The levy would initially only apply to sugary drinks and it hoped in the long term the tax would discourage staff, patients and visitors from buying sugary goods and improve the NHS's large workforce.
 
The numbers of people with diabetes in the UK is rising quickly, driven by a rise in Type 2 diabetes. There are 4 million people who have diabetes of which 549,000 people have Type 2 diabetes but don’t know they have it because they haven’t been diagnosed. 11.9 million people are at increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and if current trends continue, an estimated 5 million people will have diabetes by 2025.
 
FoodIngredientsFirst spoke with Louise Ansari, Director of Prevention of Type 2 diabetes at Diabetes UK: “We are hoping that the government will introduce a sugary drinks tax of 20% across England. However, a sugary drinks tax alone is not enough. To truly transform the health of the nation the government must also look at restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods to children and the reformulation of unhealthy foods.”
 
Ansari believes that any people consume too much sugar and people are often unaware of the "added sugars" in food and drink. She adds: “An increasing number of people are becoming overweight, and this in turn is fueling a dramatic rise in Type 2 diabetes, a serious health condition that can lead to complications including amputations, blindness and stroke and costs the NHS a staggering £10 billion a year.”
 
Kawther Hashem, is a nutritionist at the campaign group Action on Sugar. She told FoodIngredientsFirst that they support the sugar tax: “Its has been done in other countries and its resulted in a reduction of sugar consumed, if tried out in the UK, particularly to sugar sweetened drinks, it could potentially have a good effect. However, its not going to solve the issue of sugar alone. We also need comprehensive other options which should be included, for example, looking at reformulation of products and having mandatory targets for food companies in terms of the sugar contents for their products, similar to how its been done for salt in the UK.”
 
Hashem adds: “Promotions and marketing in stores certainly has a big impact, we need look closely at in store marketing and regulations to make sure there is no junk food is placed at checkouts, not encouraging people to impulse buy products that are laden with added sugars.”
 
“There are many NGO's that have been working on 9PM watersheds on advertising of unhealthy food, we think it should further than this and have a complete ban on advertising of unhealthy foods particularly during family TV time,” adds Hashem.  “We hope that the government will look at the evidence particularly what was presented by Public Health England where one of their recommendations was to have a sugar tax.”
 
Ansari tells FoodIngredientsFirst: “Other recommendations made by Public Health England include reducing and re-balancing the number of price promotions offered on unhealthy foods and reducing portion sizes.”
 
She adds: “People must also be supported to undertake regular physical activity and make healthier food choices, including a clear and consistent food labeling system. Together these steps can help to ensure that the public will be in a supportive environment to live long and healthy lives.”
 
“Almost a third of children in the UK in their final year of primary school are overweight or obese and if nothing is changed they will be at greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in later life. These complications are not only personally devastating to all those involved but also continue to put great pressure on an already stretched NHS,” Ansari stresses.
 
“The government’s childhood obesity strategy is due out shortly and we are looking for that to include measures including the restriction on marketing of junk food to children; reformulating food and drinks to make them healthier; and a 20 per cent sugary drinks tax,” Ansari concludes.
 
In a statement, an FDF spokesperson said: “As part of their commitment to play a part in improved public health, FDF members in the UK are working to reduce sugars in products, where this will result in an overall calorie reduction. Many companies are undertaking this work as part of the Government's Responsibility Deal calorie reduction pledge.”
 
The statement went on to read: “The pledge sets out a range of actions food businesses can undertake to support and enable consumers to reduce their calorie intake. This allows businesses to tailor action to best suit their products and customers for the most effective results, whether that is through reformulation to reduce calories, 'light' options, a choice of portion sizes, marketing or education.”
 
by Elizabeth Kenward

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