Put a jug of water on the table. As a slogan, it has the beauty of simplicity. As a health message, it is clear, affordable and inoffensive. But as a symbol of the state’s willingness to get to grips with the damage the food industry does to public health, it is redolent of defeatism. The battle to get us all to eat better, drink more healthily and live well takes more than a smart strap line and – in the same way that ending endemic tooth decay meant putting fluoride in the mains water supply – it takes more than self-help and individual effort.
Sugar is bad for us. It is one of the main drivers of the obesity epidemic, particularly in combination with fat. According to YouGov’s poll last weekend, nearly four people in five recognise that too much is harmful and that children and young people in particular consume too much. Now the government’s science advisory committee says the target for sugar consumption should be just 5% of the average calory intake. That’s half the current target which – like the five portions of fruit and vegetables – is widely honoured in the breach. That was confirmed in this year’s official national diet and nutrition survey, which found that all age groups consume more than they should, with sugary drinks and cake and biscuits being the main offenders. The problem for consumers is that there are myriad different targets for sugar consumption, which leaves even the most dedicated label-reader confused. Just how the industry likes it.
Governments are always reluctant to tell people what is good for them, and it is even harder now that food processing is the biggest manufacturing sector in Britain. The power of the industry is the single biggest obstacle to a healthier country: see the 50-year campaign against smoking for confirmation. Overcoming the richly resourced opposition of the tobacco industry and slowly pushing anti-smoking policy up the scale from health warnings to advertising and marketing controls and finally to compulsory plain packaging, which it has just been confirmed should be in force next year, has taken an unlucky smoker’s lifetime.
Yet this government thought the food business would volunteer to abandon its existing recipe for success and try to improve what we eat. It negotiated a so-called “responsibility deal”. Some of the biggest names in food manufacturing, such as Nestlé and Coca-Cola, signed up to help customers cut calories. But it now seems the pledges apply only to lesser-selling brands. The main brands are not significantly changed. In the face of four years of failure, it is time to acknowledge that voluntarism does not work. There are times when the state has to step in, and this is one of them.
One idea is to tax sugary drinks, as France, Hungary and Ireland all plan to do. On Thursday research from the north-west’s Food Active campaign was published that predicted a 20% tax on sugary drinks would mean 600 fewer cases of diabetes and 400 fewer strokes in the region. Lobbyists such as Sustain, as well as the main medical bodies, back such a tax. But price is a tough mechanism to manipulate, as proven by the attempt to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol – finally introduced, but at a level affecting only 1% of sales. What would work is setting a target for sugar content. It is already done to salt levels, and is credited with delivering cuts of up to 50% in some foods in just two years. Campaigners believe sugar targets could be as effective. They have advertising controls and different branding to make sugary foods less appealing to children in their sights too. They might work. But not without state backing.
Yet despite this public health emergency, politicians are nervous, talking of personal responsibility and the nanny state tag. There are real concerns about the impact of taxes on low-income families. They should remember that cheap food is often nutritionally bad food. It is linked to obesity and cancer. But for many people, there is no real alternative. That is an affront to public health, and the guardians of public health must take action against it.
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