Amid Jamie Oliver’s calls for a tax on sugary drinks and Public Health England’s (PHE) report on the need for sugar reduction in the nation’s diet, we take stock of the government’s approach to obesity and sugar consumption and the potential implications for the food and drink industry.

The link between sugar consumption and obesity, especially in children, is at the heart of recent calls for a reduction in the nation’s sugar consumption. Public Health England estimates that 9% of 4-5 year olds and 19% of 10-11 year olds are obese. UK sugar intake figures taken from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey suggest that the average sugar intake in school-aged children and teenagers is three times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended 5% of daily calorie intake. Obesity is estimated to cost the NHS between £5-6bn every year. The problem of obesity is indubitable.

The government was due to publish its childhood obesity strategy at the end of 2015. However, following considerable media and Parliamentary attention around sugar consumption in October and November last year, its publication has been delayed and is still awaited. Three related events have had an impact on the government’s position in recent months.

First, in October PHE issued its report entitled “Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action”. The report drew attention to the health problems caused by too much sugar. It pointed to influencing factors behind the nation’s unusually high sugar consumption, including the high volume of food marketing that children are exposed to, and widespread food retail price promotions. It called for a number of actions, including reducing price promotions and the marketing of high sugar food and drink products to children, the introduction of a programme of sugar reduction in everyday products, improving education and awareness around risks of high sugar consumption, and, controversially, the introduction of a tax of 10-20% on high sugar products.

Following this report, Jamie Oliver’s petition calling for a tax on sugary drinks gained a high media profile due to Oliver’s celebrity status and previous campaigning in the area of healthy eating. The petition gained over 150,000 signatures and prompted a Parliamentary debate at the end of November. Photos of Oliver giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee for Health on childhood obesity attracted front page coverage in media outlets.

Coinciding with the debate came the publication of the Select Committee’s report “Childhood Obesity – Brave and Bold Action”. The report confirmed and supported many of PHE’s findings, whilst advocating a broader strategy to tackle childhood obesity than merely focussing on reducing sugar consumption. Significantly however, the report recommended many of the same actions, including stronger controls on price promotions and advertising, a centrally-led reformulation programme, clearer labelling and a sugary drinks tax with all proceeds targeted to help children at greatest risk of obesity.

These factors have contributed to an apparent reversal of government policy on a “sugar tax”. The Department of Health initially stated in its response to Jamie Oliver’s petition that “the government has no plans to introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages” and stressed the need for a “comprehensive and broad approach” to tackling childhood obesity. Downing Street stated following PHE’s report that “there are more effective ways of tackling this issue than putting a tax on sugar.”

However, in January this year, when asked by journalists if he was ready to reverse his position on a sugar tax, David Cameron replied “we shouldn’t be in the business of ruling things out.” Whilst not a ringing endorsement of such a measure, his response clearly indicates a softening in the government’s approach. Cameron acknowledged the “obesity crisis” that Britain faces, and it seems that all measures are now back on the table as we wait for the childhood obesity strategy to be published.

The food and drink industry is likely to push back strongly against any proposals for a sugar tax. The Food and Drink Federation has argued that a tax is unlikely to change diets in any meaningful way, and points to public education as a more effective factor in influencing the nation’s eating habits. Other critics of a sugar tax argue that it will only make life harder for more deprived households who, it is claimed, often rely on cheaper and less healthy foodstuffs. Indeed, according to Public Health England statistics, there is a direct correlation between deprivation and obesity. A sugar tax would penalise most those who most need the benefits that come from a reduction in sugar consumption.

That said, there is a clear driver from the perspective of public relations for industry to be seen to be taking action on this issue. There are signs that the industry would support a push for product reformulation to reduce sugar intake, as well as tighter marketing restrictions. These measures among others are fully expected to be included in the strategy.

Against this backdrop, if somewhat under the radar of the broader debate, a Private Members Bill is making its way through Parliament that introduces some first steps to tackle sugar consumption. Geraint Davies MP’s “Sugar in Food and Drinks (Targets, Labelling and Advertising) Bill” is due for its second reading in the House of Commons on 11 March. Much as its title suggests, the Bill would require the setting of annual targets for sugar consumption, clearer labelling of sugar content in products, and sugar content to be made clear in advertising with a prohibition on describing a product as “healthy” or “low-fat” where the sugar content exceeds 20%.

It is not clear what progress the Bill will make and it is likely to be submerged beneath whatever measures the government does propose in its strategy. Nonetheless, it is another indication that the issue of sugar consumption and childhood obesity is one that the government cannot risk ignoring. What is clear is that a rounded holistic approach is needed to tackle the problem, encompassing government, industry, health professionals, schools and families, all playing their part to help the next generation stay fit and healthy. We await the publication of the Obesity Strategy with interest.