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20 Sep 2022
Liz Truss faces potential legal challenges in her bid to dump sugar tax
By Frances Marcellin
Liz Truss faces potential legal challenges in her bid to dump sugar tax
Liz Truss's government has commissioned an internal summary of obesity policy
Photo: Clicksbox / Shutterstock

Plans to shelve the UK's sugar tax (Soft Drinks Industry Levy) and other pieces of legislation designed to tackle the obesity epidemic have hit legal hurdles and fierce resistance from both MPs and the medical profession.

Last week, The Guardian, reported Whitehall sources saying the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had commissioned an internal 'summary' of its obesity policy “in light of an unprecedented global economic situation”, leading to fears various pieces of critical legislation could be repealed in a 'bonfire of restrictions'.

At the time the DHSC responded saying the move was simply part of the "routine work of government rather than a formal review”, however, there has been growing concern it would lead to the government withdrawing the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – and the potential abandonment of further policies designed to alleviate the obesity crisis.

Fears were exacerbated by comments made by Liz Truss during her prime ministerial campaign when she said she would not introduce additional obesity-related policies or taxes on unhealthy food and planned to 'roll back the Nanny state'. “Those taxes are over,” she said in an interview with the Daily Mail.

The Times reported that the chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, ordered health officials to review obesity control measures “in the context of the cost of living crisis”, a move regarded as a prelude to “ditching many of them”.

Now it seems Liz Truss will be in for a fight if she wants to push through these changes, with no clear way forward legally.

The sugar tax has had a major impact on public health, raising £300m for the Treasury between 2020 and 2021 alone and £1bn since it was introduced, with this money being spent in part on sports equipment, promoting physical activity in schools and school breakfasts for vulnerable children.

Action on Sugar, a charity dedicated to creating awareness around the impact of excess sugar on the public’s wellbeing, believes the policies at risk include calorie labelling on menus and the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and is concerned about the upcoming implementation of policies designed to address the obesity epidemic. These include location restrictions on foods high in fat, salt and sugar, where supermarkets and food retailers must not place specified food in certain locations, such as within 2m of a checkout (legislation planned for October 2022), restrictions on multibuy deals (delayed to October 2023), and limits on TV and online advertising (delayed until January 2024).

“Without doubt, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy demonstrated best practice for both business and for the nation's health, especially those from the most deprived areas,” said Mhairi Brown, policy and public affairs manager at Action on Sugar. “In fact, as a result of the levy, 48m kilos of sugar was removed per year (2015-2019) from the nation’s diet and a whopping £1bn has been raised to fund important activities like school breakfasts for vulnerable children.

“Measures like this must now be championed and protected by the government to help prevent the unnecessary deaths and suffering of thousands of people, caused by unhealthy diets, whilst saving the NHS billions of pounds a year.”

“Treating obesity and its consequences currently costs the NHS £5.1bn every year,” reads the 2015 report Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action from Public Health England. “Consumption of sugar and sugar-sweetened drinks is particularly high in school-age children,” it stated. “It also tends to be highest among the most disadvantaged who also experience a higher prevalence of tooth decay and obesity and its health consequences.”

Results reported in 2020 demonstrated a 43.7 per cent reduction in the total sugar content per 100ml between 2015 and 2019 in drinks as a result of the sugar tax. (Public Health England was an executive agency of the DHSC, which closed in 2021 with health improvement operations transferred to the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities.)

The NHS states that obesity is caused by a lack of physical activity and consuming high amounts of energy, particularly fats and sugars. It lists the main causes as “drinking too many sugary drinks” and “eating large amounts of processed or fast food that’s high in fat and sugar”.

In 2019-2020 there were more than one million admissions to the NHS where obesity was a factor. The Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet from 2021 showed that 29 per cent of women and 27 per cent of men are obese, with children in deprived areas twice as likely to be obese as those in the least deprived.

Obesity continues to be a growing problem in children. At around four years of age, data shows that 20.3 per cent in the most deprived areas were obese compared to 7.8 per cent in the least deprived, and in children aged 10-11 years old, 33.8 per cent in the most deprived areas are obese compared with 14.3 per cent in the least deprived.

The Royal Society of Public Health, a health education charity, estimates that the cost of obesity to the NHS will rise to £10bn a year by 2050. It states that sugary drinks account for 30 per cent of 4-10-year-olds’ daily sugar intake.

Yet some would welcome the removal of such policies. “Scrapping policies that make food and drink more expensive during a cost-of-living crisis is a no-brainer,” said Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, an educational charity. “The sugar tax has achieved nothing and the ban on volume price discounts will hurt everybody. We are long overdue a prime minister who puts the interests of consumers over the interests of nanny state pressure groups. Let us hope Liz Truss is that Prime Minister.”

The DHSC told HCM that it remains “committed to doing everything we can to help people live healthier lives” and that “addressing obesity remains a priority for the government”.

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