PM rules out 'sugar tax' again despite official report's recommendation


A controversial report on sugar that was delayed by the Health Secretary recommends a "sugar tax" as part of a crackdown on childhood obesity.

The report, which was not due to be released until the Government's obesity strategy is published, says there should be a price increase of a minimum of 10% to 20% on high-sugar products like full-sugar soft drinks through the use of a tax or levy.

It also calls for efforts to "reduce and rebalance" the number and type of price promotions on foods and to "significantly reduce opportunities to market and advertise high-sugar food and drink products to children and adults across all media including digital platforms and through sponsorship".

The report was finally published on the same day that Downing Street confirmed that David Cameron did not read it before dismissing the idea.

A Number 10 spokesman made clear the Prime Minister does not want a sugar tax to feature in the Government's national obesity strategy, telling reporters: "The Prime Minister's view remains that he doesn't see a need for a tax on sugar."

Mr Cameron's stance puts him at loggerheads with campaigning TV chef Jamie Oliver, who has said he is "ready for a fight" with Government on the issue.

A row over the PHE (Public Health England) report arose after it emerged that PHE bosses agreed not to publish the report, which was originally scheduled for July, until the Government was ready to go ahead with its obesity strategy.

A letter from PHE to the House of Commons health committee, which has taken officials to task over the delayed publication, said Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt needed more time to get cross-government support.

The new study said food retail price promotions "are more widespread in Britain than anywhere else in Europe" and "higher sugar products are promoted more than other foods".

The report, called Sugar Reduction: The Evidence For Action, warns that average sugar intake is 12% to 15% of people's energy intake instead of the 5% Government advisers say it should be.

Referring to a "sugar tax", it says there is a case for an extra 10% to 20% on sugary foods and drinks.

"Research studies and impact data from countries that have already taken action suggest that price increases, such as by taxation, can influence purchasing of sugar-sweetened drinks and other high-sugar products at least in the short term with the effect being larger at higher levels of taxation," it said.

In other recommendations, the report said steps should be taken to create a clear definition of what high sugar foods are.

It also calls for the "introduction of a broad, structured and transparently monitored programme of gradual sugar reduction in everyday food and drink products, combined with reductions in portion size".

The Government must also continue to "raise awareness of concerns around sugar levels in the diet to the public as well as health professionals, employers, the food industry etc, encourage action to reduce intakes, and provide practical steps to help people lower their own and their families' sugar intake."

Attacking price promotions in supermarkets and other outlets, the report said: "Price promotions increase the amount of food and drink people buy by around one-fifth.

"These are purchases people would not make without the in-store promotions.

"They also increase the amount of sugar purchased from higher sugar foods and drinks by 6% overall and influence purchasing by all socioeconomic and demographic groups."

Writing in the Daily Mail earlier, Oliver said he had based his arguments on evidence from doctors and scientists, despite industry perhaps presenting him as a "TV chef who has got too big for his boots".

He added: "In my meetings with him (Mr Cameron) on the subject, I've outlined my own experiences of seeing just how devastating too much sugar can be."

The Number 10 spokesman defended Mr Cameron's position, saying: "The Prime Minister's view on this is pretty clear - he very much sees that it is really important for us to tackle childhood obesity."

Proposed measures such as restrictions on advertising unhealthy products to children or lowering sugar content in food and drinks would be taken into account as the strategy was drawn up, he said.

But he added: "The Prime Minister's view remains the same, that he does not see the need for a tax on sugar, but that it's important to remember that that is not the only part of this debate, that there are a large number of different elements to it... The Prime Minister thinks there are more effective ways of tackling this issue than putting a tax on sugar."

The spokesman confirmed that the PM had not read the PHE report before forming his view on the sugar tax: "I don't believe he's read that specific report, but obviously all of the evidence and all of the reports on this wide-ranging set of issues will all be taken into account. There are lots and lots of pieces of evidence within this debate."

PHE chief David Heymann confirmed in a letter to the health committee that he had agreed to delay the report to give Mr Hunt time to overcome the "challenge" he is facing from other ministers in securing agreement on the obesity strategy.

He said: "The board respects the challenge facing the Secretary of State for Health in securing cross-Government agreement, and has agreed that it would be appropriate for PHE to publish its evidence alongside his strategy after he has had the time he needs to secure agreement."