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Volume 818: debated on Monday 24 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effect of sugar on health in England; and what steps they will take to reduce its consumption.

My Lords, consuming too much sugar can lead to weight gain, which in turn increases the risk of serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Covid-19. It also increases the risk of tooth decay. Through the healthy weight strategy, we are delivering a sugar reduction and reformulation programme, including the soft drinks industry levy, and legislating to restrict the promotion and advertising of products high in fat, salt, and sugar.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. He would agree that we need a suite of different approaches—

—to try to make some headway. One of the great successes has been the sugar tax, yet the Government, for reasons which he previously explained, have decided not to extend it over a wider front because of unforeseen contingencies which created problems. Would he examine the prospect of taxing those unforeseen consequences so that the major driver for changing behaviour—pricing—will start to deliver the real results for us?

I thank the noble Lord for what I am sure was his unintended pun. I will try not to sugar-coat my response too much. We will see who can descend to the worst pun by the end.

We take seriously the issue of unintended consequences. As the noble Lord has rightly said, there has been evidence of people deciding to go to a different brand. In the case of Irn-Bru, it introduced a newer version, which I think it called “Irn-Bru 1901”, which has in fact a higher sugar content. We are very aware of that, which is why all the measures that we take must be evidence based.

My Lords, in the National Food Strategy, which the Government are due to respond to soon, the suggestion is made that we introduce a £3 per kilogram tax on sugar, which would be on all processed food, food used in restaurants and food used in catering. It would, in effect, extend the current soft drinks levy which, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, has been very successful. It is very straightforward. What is the Government’s response?

We are looking at a number of different measures in terms of what works and what does not work, and we are very clear that it must be based on evidence. The Government keep all taxes under regular review, and decisions about the future development of taxes are made by the Chancellor, in line with the Government’s tax policy-making framework.

My Lords, overconsumption of sugar causes both dental decay and obesity, but it is dental disease which, unfortunately, is in many cases largely irreversible. Does the Minister agree that action to tackle diet-related disease such as tooth decay must be formally recognised as an integral part of ongoing work to confront obesity?

I agree with my noble friend: it is really important that we review all the evidence and the different programmes. As she rightly said, the fact is that a number of hospital admissions of young children are quite often because those children have tooth decay that requires serious intervention. We are making sure that we look at all the different measures—what has worked and what has not worked—to put these into an evidence-led approach.

My Lords, the Minister said he was looking at all the evidence. In doing that, I wonder whether he is looking at what happens, for example, in Amsterdam, where there is a very enlightened policy of education—going into schools and dealing with mums before they have even given birth—in order that there is a better understanding of this. Surely we must have as wide a spread and approach as that, and not just deal with taxes, which are important.

The noble Lord makes a really important point: it cannot just be about fiscal policy; it has to be across a whole range of different areas, including education and prevention. Indeed, one of the things that the NHS is looking at for the future is making sure that we focus more on prevention rather than cure—not to put cure aside; clearly, we have to deal with people who are ill. At the request of the Government, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition has undertaken an extensive evaluation of the evidence, looking at all the measures that we could possibly take to reduce sugar consumption.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, raises an important issue. Obesity is now a major UK health problem, and excess sugar consumption is a major cause, with significant sugar content in too much of our food. I confess to being somewhat of a sugar addict myself—corrected by my wife, but I still love chocolates and three spoonfuls of sugar in my coffee.

One of the issues that we need to be aware of as we look at how to tackle sugar levels is that, although we have seen a reduction in sugar in drinks and in many food products over the years, a concern that is often raised is whether the sweeteners have unintended consequences that also cause health issues. We have to consider all the evidence when we look at the measures that we introduce.

My Lords, can the Minister comment on the proposed relationship between high-carbohydrate consumption—which is what sugar is—and deprivation?

I always turn to the noble Lord for his experience and advice. It is well known that diabetics, for example, do not look at their sugar content but at their intake of carbohydrates when looking at their diet. I say this as someone whose family has both type 1 and type 2 diabetics, so I understand this issue. I would welcome more information from the noble Lord.

My Lords, since its introduction in 2018, the sugar tax on soft drinks has successfully reduced sugar intake and raised more than £880 million, which the Government had promised to spend on tackling childhood obesity. However, it is no longer directly linked to any specific programmes, nor to departmental spending. Can the Minister explain this turnaround to your Lordships’ House, and what assessment has been made of the effect on public confidence that similar taxes will be dedicated to expenditure on improving people’s health?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising the success so far of the programme in reducing sugar in drinks. Between 2015 and 2019, we saw a 44% reduction in sales-weighted average total sugar in retailer and manufacturer-branded drinks subject to the soft drinks industry levy. The money raised through the soft drinks industry levy was not linked to any specific programmes or departmental spending. As the noble Baroness will be aware, departmental spend is allocated through spending reviews by the Treasury, and there is quite often some scepticism over hypothec—sorry, probably too much sugar, or not enough sugar—or hypothecated taxes, but we are committed to tackling childhood obesity through a number of different programmes.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the problem is not just sugar but the fact that people are putting too many calories of all sorts in their mouth? The real answer to the obesity epidemic and the Covid problem is to reduce the total number of calories going into the mouth. If your waist measurement is more than half your height, you are eating too much of the gross national product.

I thank my noble friend for that catchy slogan; I wonder whether we could use it in some of our campaigns. As he rightly says, it is not just sugar. There are concerns about ultra-processed foods, for example, but also the size of portions. Many noble Lords will be aware that, for some simple products, the portion sizes have increased over the years, and if you want to get a small portion you have to either buy something and share it with someone or throw away half of it. We are looking at all these measures to make sure that our diets are healthier, that we have the right balance with smaller portions and that people are doing exercise. It is one thing is to consume those calories but another to burn them off.

My Lords, the Government buy 5% of the calories eaten every day; that is a figure from Henry Dimbleby. Does the Minister agree that the Government must do a lot more in a co-ordinated way to use government procurement in schools, hospitals, prisons and other institutions to ensure that the food available to people has far less sugar in it and, ideally, includes fresh fruit and vegetables rather than ultra-processed food?

I thank the noble Baroness for her recommendations for the sort of healthy diet we should have. She is absolutely right that, when government expects people to reduce their consumption of unhealthy food, it should set the way and lead by example. We are therefore looking at how we change diets in schools and across the public sector.