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Sugar Tax

Volume 768: debated on Wednesday 3 February 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the light of the World Health Organisation’s analysis in the Report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, they support the proposal of the National Health Service to introduce a sugar tax.

My Lords, we are interested to see the results of the consultation on NHS England’s proposals for a sugar tax. Urgent action is needed to tackle obesity, particularly in children, which is why we will shortly set out a comprehensive new strategy to tackle the problem.

The World Health Organization and the NHS, both distinguished bodies, have proclaimed that a sugar tax is desirable, necessary and should be introduced as soon as possible. In that light, do the Government have any plans to revise their previous position and introduce proposals for a sugar tax by no later than April of this year?

My Lords, the Government are considering a whole range of options for tackling the scourge of obesity in young people, which include portion control, reformulation, advertising and many others. One issue they are considering is a sugar tax, but we will announce the results of that strategy in the very near future.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the key to weight management is correcting energy imbalance? Will the Government therefore consider forcing manufacturers of junk foods to put on their labels the number of hours of vigorous exercise that are equivalent to the contents of the packet?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, there are plans for later this year to have compulsory labelling of sugar content on packaging. However, I am not aware that there are any plans to have pictures of well-known athletes on the packaging as well.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the issue of obesity, which is indeed a scourge, is largely one of individual and, in the case of children, parental responsibility?

My noble friend is partly right. It is of course a matter of individual and parental responsibility, but I think we have an obligation in our country to make the right choice as easy as possible, and for too many people the wrong choice is far too easy to make.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware of a meta-analysis study carried out of nine studies which compared the pricing of sugar-sweetened beverages against the reduction of consumption of such drinks. It showed considerable price elasticity. Therefore, it is difficult to determine in an economy like ours the level of taxation that is required to achieve the right reduction. What plans do the Government have to find such evidence?

My Lords, it is interesting that in the plans put forward for consultation by Simon Stevens of NHS England they are looking at a levy of 20% on sweetened beverages. In Mexico, they brought in a sugar tax of 10%, which according to a study by the Lancet resulted in a reduction in consumption of some 12%. But it is very difficult to isolate the particular impact of tax when many other measures are being used at the same time.

My Lords, Simon Stevens, the NHS chief executive, recently pointed out that obesity is the new smoking, and that Britain spends more on obesity-related healthcare than on the police, the fire service, prisons and the criminal justice service combined: £6 billion and rising. He has promised to raise the price of sugary drinks sold on NHS premises to staff, patients and visitors as another small step. Cannot the Government take steps to introduce this policy across all government departments and institutions?

My Lords, public procurement certainly has a role to play in tackling obesity. I am sure that that is one of the issues that will be addressed in the forthcoming strategy.

Does my noble friend agree that taxation, along with other measures, has played a significant role in diminishing the consumption of tobacco in this country over the years? Is it not therefore rather strange that the Government should be so reluctant to make more use of this weapon with regard to obesity?

My Lords, we have to be careful, or at least recognise, that if a sugar tax were imposed it would fall largely on those who are least able to afford it. There is of course a strong argument for a sugar tax, but there is also a case for making the argument against sugar consumption and making it easier for people not to consume sugar before we resort to taxation.

My Lords, the Mayor of London, a well-respected member of the Conservative Party, has already put a sugar tax on sugary drinks at City Hall, so might the Government consider doing the same for the rest of Britain?

My Lords, what the Mayor of London has done at City Hall is similar to what Simon Stevens proposes to do within the NHS. The Government will watch both moves with great interest.

My Lords, will the Minister give us an assurance that when the new policy comes out to tackle obesity we will not fall into the trap of saying that the answer is exercise? You have to run for miles and miles to take off a single pound of fat.

My Lords, I am sure that the House is aware that sugar comes from many sources—sugar cane, sugar beet and in fruit. Which sugar would we tax?

The noble Baroness makes an interesting point. This is one of the difficulties with the proposal for a sugar tax. We must be very careful about which sugars we would tax. I cannot give the noble Baroness a proper answer save that where sugar taxes have been introduced, they apply to where sugar is added as part of the manufacturing process or where it is present in syrups and fruit juices, but not where it occurs in, for example, fruit or vegetables.