NHS chief executive Simon Stevens told The Guardian that he wanted to introduce a 20% levy on sugary foods and snacks.
However, he said a rolling programme of mandatory reformulation of food and drink products was a more important long-term solution to the obesity problem. Stevens added that this shouldn’t be done overnight, but on a “phased basis”.
Stevens also criticised retailers for two-for-one deals on cakes, biscuits and sweets, and the positioning of snacks close to checkouts.
According to Stevens, the NHS will increase the cost of high-sugar drinks and snacks sold in cafés and vending machines across hundreds of acute, mental health and community services hospitals by 2020, as well as in every local health centre.
The move is expected generate a windfall of £20M–£40M a year. It will make the NHS the first public body in the UK to bring in a sugar tax.
Stevens said: “The NHS has a responsibility not just to support those who look after patients but also to draw attention to, and make the case for, some of the wider changes that will actually improve the health of this country.
“We will be consulting on introducing an NHS sugar tax on various beverages and other sugar-added foods, which would be enforced over time as contracts for food catering and the shops that are in the foyers of hospitals come up for renewal over the next three to five years on a rolling basis.”
He added: “By 2020, we’ve either got these practices out of hospitals or we’ve got the equipment of a sugar tax on the back of them.”
Force to reformulate
Stevens also urged the government to force food companies to reformulate in order to tackle the “national sugar high” that was increasingly ruining people’s health.
He said: “We’ve taken out 15% of added salt from our food over the course of the last decade. We need to set comparably ambitious targets for added sugar and hold the food industry to account for that with regulatory action.”
“There is an important case for not doing this overnight with a big bang, but doing it on a phased basis. It’s partly around re-educating our palates and the palates of our children.”
The latest assault on sugar follows last week’s warning by Prime Minister David Cameron that a sugar tax might be the best way to combat obesity. It contradicts a statement made last October, in which he said there were more effective ways of tackling the issue.
The government’s strategy on childhood obesity, originally scheduled for last December, is expected to be published next month.
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) response:
Ian Wright, director general of the FDF, said:
“It’s puzzling that Mr Stevens has chosen to pre-empt the launch of government’s comprehensive obesity strategy, which his own department is developing, to announce plans for new taxes, which haven’t ever been shown to make a sustained difference to obesity. Public Health England acknowledges that there is a lack of evidence about the long-term effectiveness of additional taxes on food and drink. We can only assume, therefore, that today’s announcement is driven more by the need to raise money than by any wish to change behaviours.
“Only recently [September 2015], Simon Stevens announced plans for a holistic strategy to support the health of the NHS workforce, including exercise classes, health checks and support for employees’ mental health, as well as efforts to work with suppliers to make food and drink sold on-site healthier. All of these initiatives taken together have a far greater chance of creating a healthier workforce and one that can inspire patients toward healthier behaviours.”