Britain addicted to sugar with young among top European consumers, says minister


Britain is addicted to sugar, with its children having among the highest intake across Europe, England's Public Health Minister has warned.

Nicola Blackwood's comments to MPs came as the minister was quizzed by MPs on the Health Select Committee about the Government's childhood obesity plan.

The plan, released last summer, drew much criticism from health bodies for omitting new curbs on junk food advertising.

The document had an emphasis on greater physical activity in schools and a voluntary scheme for the food industry to reformulate popular children's products to reduce sugar content.

Also central to the document is the Government's sugar tax on soft drinks.

Labour's Heidi Alexander said: "It feels ubiquitous wherever you go to purchase any type of product you are surrounded with offers on confectionery, sweet goods, and for people to say that we're moving in the right direction doesn't feel that way at all."

Ms Blackwood replied: "The point that you raise really highlights the scale of the challenge that we face and that's one of the reasons we are focusing in on the producer-led measures of the soft drinks industry levy and the reformulation programme.

"Those are two areas where we can manage the impact very effectively and we know that we will be able to effectively reduce the intake of soft drinks and sugar which is among the highest intake of anywhere in Europe for our children in the UK.

"And we can also reduce the intake of sugar from key foods for our children.

"This is an area where we know we can have an impact as well as sports in schools.

"That is a place to start, but we have developed in the UK an addiction to sugar.

"When we start looking at the ubiquitous areas, that's more challenging so that's the next step.

"So when I look at this as a minister, there is no way I am going to achieve this as a Government top-down strategy imposing it on everyone.

"The only way we are going to achieve this is by partnership working between government and industry and schools working together to try and deliver this and it is genuinely a generational change that we're after.

"I hope that this is the beginning of a revolutionary change."

But another witness told the powerful group of MPs that the voluntary scheme will fail.

Ministers hope the food industry will cut 20% of sugar from the products children enjoy including cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads over the next five years, with a 5% cut in the first year.

But Paul Dobson, professor of business strategy and public policy at the University of East Anglia, told the committee: "(These measures) will fail because they are not targeted.

"They have the same problems as the Responsibility Deal in that they relying on one-to-one agreements over it as opposed to industry requirement to do it.

"The reason I think the soft drinks industry levy will work is because it will apply to the industry. You either reformulate or you will pay a tax.

"There is a clear incentive on everybody to move in a direction.

"A vague statement: 'we want to reduce 20%' without identifying where you want that 20% to come down to, or how you're going to achieve it, is clearly not going to be a successful strategy because it doesn't even tell you where the starting point is."

He added: "There is no stick here. What is the threat if you don't comply?

"There should be some threat that 'if you don't reduce by this level by the set period then there will be a sugar tax introduced for your particular category'."

Commenting on the hearing, Professor Russell Viner, officer for health promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said: "With one in five five-year-olds and one in three 10-year-olds overweight or obese in the UK, and the figures showing no signs of improving, tackling childhood obesity has never been more urgent."

The Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of 35 leading health charities, campaign groups and Royal Medical Colleges, said: "We're pleased to see the Health Select Committee holding the Government to account for childhood obesity.

"In recent months childhood obesity levels have hit a devastating high, highlighting the urgent need to protect our children from increased risk of preventable illnesses in the future.

"The Committee and many other health experts are in clear agreement that we need bold action like the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, significant reduction of sugar, saturated fat and salt from everyday food, and tighter regulations on junk food marketing to children; the latter of which was disappointingly missed out of the plan."