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Fizzy drinks tax plan under fire from industry and advertisers

By Mike Stones , 18-Feb-2013
Last updated on 18-Feb-2013 at 12:35 GMT

Calls for a tax on fizzy drinks and a TV watershed for advertising high fat foods from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC) have been slammed by the soft drinks industry and advertising representatives.

The report claimed that current measures to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis were failing and that certain foods should be treated like cigarettes.

It said obesity-related illness cost the National Health Service an estimated £5.1bn a year and recommended 10 actions to remedy the crisis.

Those included a ban on the TV advertising foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt before 9pm, taxes on sugary drinks to increase prices by at least 20% and a reduction in fast food outlets near schools and leisure centres.

The British Soft Drinks Association agreed that obesity was a major public health priority but disputed the effectiveness of a tax. Its director general Gavin Partington rejected “the idea that a tax on soft drinks − which contribute just 2% of the total calories in the average diet − is going to address a problem which is about overall diet and levels of activity”.

Partington said that over the past 10 years, the consumption of soft drinks containing added sugar has fallen by 9%, while the incidence of obesity has risen. More than 60% of soft drinks now contain no added sugar and soft drinks companies were committed to further, voluntary action as part of the government’s Responsibility Deal Calorie Reduction Pledge, he said.

Putting up taxes

“Don’t forget that there already is a 20% tax on soft drinks − 10p out of every 60p can of drink already goes to the government thanks to VAT. Putting up taxes even further will put pressure on people’s purses at a time when they can ill afford it.”

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) described the report as “a damp squib”, which “added little to an important debate”.

Terry Jones, its director of communications, said: “It fails to recognise both the far more substantial and compelling analysis published in the Foresight report and the range of activities already underway including through the Public Health Responsibility Deal not only on food, but also alcohol (a significant contributor of calories to the adult diet), physical activity and health in the workplace.”

The report was “a collection of unbalanced ideas apparently heavily influenced by single issue pressure groups”, he warned.

The Independent Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) accused the AMRC of “grandstanding on the serious issue of obesity”.

‘Grandstanding on obesity’

Of 10 recommendations to tackle obesity, only one is about improving health care and the rest are political or social interventions, it said.

Ian Twinn, ISBA’s director of public affairs, said: “Obesity is real and a cause for concern, but the medics appear not to have looked at the evidence in calling for ad bans; instead they have used it as an excuse to grandstand.

“The medical colleges assert that there is evidence that ad restrictions are effective against rising obesity, the trouble is that the evidence does not exist.”

Twinn said the medical professions should look at the evidence and to work together with government and business to change eating and exercise patterns through the Responsibility Deal.

The college’s report, Measuring Up – The Medical Profession’s Prescription For The Nation’s Obesity Crisis , recommendations included:  

  • 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%
  • Reducing the number of fast food outlets near schools and leisure centres
  • Introducing a £100M budget for interventions such as weight-loss surgery
  • Banning junk food or vending machines in hospitals, where all food must meet the same nutritional standards as in schools
  • Ensuring food labels include calorie information for children.

The report likened efforts to control controversial foods with the battle to discourage tobacco use.

“We aspire to the success that the medical profession achieved with the tobacco control, by standing firm on the scale of the challenge and standing up to those with vested interests which seek to obscure and distort,” concluded the report.

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