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Sugar Tax

Volume 768: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2016


Asked by

My Lords, we will be launching our childhood obesity strategy soon. It will look at everything, including sugar, that contributes to a child becoming overweight and obese. It will also set out what more can be done by all sides.

If we had a league of government U-turns, this one would surely head the list. Not so long ago, the Prime Minister said that a sugar tax was not worth while. Now, urged on by experts and MPs of all parties, he says that it is not a bad idea. What should we now do? My view is that we should follow the example of Mexico. Why wait for many months when the evidence is very clear? Why do the Government not act immediately?

My Lords, I think the Prime Minister’s position is that he will want to think long and hard before imposing a tax that would fall by and large on those least able to afford it. On the other hand, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health recognise that obesity is a scourge in this country, affecting young people in particular, and will want to implement a comprehensive range of measures to tackle it.

My Lords, I was just going to say that perhaps the House itself would like to indicate who it would like to ask a question because we are at that point in the cycle when it is not anybody’s turn next. However, I think the House has indicated that it would like to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins.

My Lords, what assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of evidence provided by the BMA—I should declare an interest here as chair of the BMA’s Board of Science—Public Health England and others on the anticipated positive impact of implementing a sugar tax? Does the Minister agree that we need a range of regulatory and educational measures to reduce the intake of added sugars, particularly among children and young people, but also adults with learning disabilities who are vulnerable to some of the same market pressures?

My Lords, the Government have taken into account a range of evidence from Public Health England, the McKinsey institute, the SACN and others in coming to their strategy. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that the response will need to take into account issues such as reformulation, portion size, availability and a whole range of other issues that affect sugar intake.

My Lords, while the sugar tax for fizzy drinks is a regressive tax, the very people it would target stand to benefit from such a tax because, leaving aside obesity, which is a long-term problem, dental caries are a short-term problem. There is no doubt that sugary drinks are causing a massive amount of dental caries, the cost of which falls on the NHS, as these unfortunate children have to have dental extractions which will affect their well-being and quality of life for years to come.

My Lords, reduction of sugar is a critical part of the Government’s obesity strategy. It has been made clear by the reports of Public Health England, the McKinsey institute and others that there is no silver bullet. It is not just a question of passing a tax and getting the results that you wish to have. If a tax were to come in, it would be part of a whole range of other measures.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the introduction of a modest sugary drinks tax should be a win-win policy in that, if it works, people would be deterred from consuming those drinks, switch to alternatives and lead healthier lifestyles, and, if it does not work, it would raise money much needed by the NHS to deal with the problems of the obesity and diabetes epidemics?

My Lords, as I said earlier, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health are thinking long and hard about what should be part of the obesity strategy. I am not sure that the noble Lord is right when he says that a modest tax would have much of an impact; it would have to be a significant tax to have a major impact on the consumption of sugary drinks.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the campaign against tobacco and cigarettes has been particularly effective? It has been applied across all sectors of the economy with no differentiation between any particular sectors. He mentions that, this time round, we have to be concerned about how sugar might impact on particular parts of the community but, surely, we should make our approach similar to what we did with cigarettes and tobacco and we should apply it right across the board so that we all gain from the change.

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is right; indeed, the Prime Minister has called this the new smoking. Obesity is as important to public health as smoking has been in the past. We have to build a much stronger case among the public at large before we can start to introduce the full range of tax and other measures that we have had for cigarettes and alcohol.

My Lords, has the Minister tried the Sugar Smart app on his mobile phone, which can be found on the Change4Life website? I tried the app this morning—it is very clever; it reads a barcode and tells you how much sugar is in a product. Unfortunately, however, I tried it on five sugary products and it did not have any of them in its database. Has this very good idea been under resourced?

My Lords, fortunately I, too, tried the Sugar Smart app this morning. Interestingly, 600,000 people have downloaded that app and the PHE Change4Life programme has had considerable success in raising awareness of the amount of sugar that you consume when you buy a product in the supermarket.