The medical journal is publishing a series of four papers examining the global obesity issue. Unless action is taken, it warns, 11m more British adults will be obese by 2030, costing the health service an extra £2bn a year.
“The UK government has made it clear that only voluntary agreements with food and beverage companies are on the agenda, and many of the public health committees are made up of large numbers of these very industry representatives,” the editorial said. “Do these voluntary agreements work? All indications so far are that they do not.”
It added: “The obesity epidemic will not be reversed without government leadership. Business as usual would be costly in terms of population health, health care expenses, and loss of productivity.”
Hungary fat tax
Hungary is introducing a fat tax in September which will penalise foods with a high fat, sugar or salt content in a move it believes will raise €70m a year.
Denmark recently introduced a saturated fat tax that resulted in significant price increases on butter, margarine and whipped cream.
In May a UK tax on salt, alcohol, sugar and saturated fats was proposed by Sir Nicholas Wald, director of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine in London.
He said: "There is now a substantial global epidemic of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. There is no single way to tackle it, but one way is to engineer society to make the healthy foods cheaper relative to the unhealthy foods.”
Adopting the tax would earn the Treasury £38bn a year, he said.
But the idea of a fat tax remains highly contentious in the UK, where even the British Medical Association has voted against supporting such a scheme.
A BMA spokesman told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “We believe regulation is part of the answer to the problem. The way to have a successful policy on this is to adopt various different approaches. One is to try to give people the information so they know the kinds of things that are in their food – we’re in favour of the traffic light system.
“We don’t believe in fat taxes or anything like that. The government and society needs to focus on children, promoting exercise in schools and healthier lifestyles.”
One leading industry consultant, who specialises in fat-related issues, said: “I think the industry has done quite a lot to try to counter the problem but to a large extent it’s down to people’s lifestyles.
“It’s not just about energy intake – it’s also about energy expenditure. Why not put a tax on television?”
He added: “I would like to think that a voluntary code is going to be enough. You can put codes in but it still comes down to what people, in the end, want to do.”
Terry Jones, the Food & Drink Federation’s director of communications, said the Lancet had not given the food industry enough credit for its recent efforts.
"We recognise the significant threat that obesity poses to society and have taken a proactive role in improving health,” he said. “Food companies are well aware of the complex diet, lifestyle and health challenges facing society and understand the high expectations that policy makers, regulators and campaigners have of the entire food industry.
“Though the Responsibility Deal initiative is still in its infancy, we firmly believe that, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development made clear last year, co-operation between government and industry is the single most critical link in a multi stakeholder approach.”