Prime Minister David Cameron has left the door open to putting a new tax on sugary drinks, telling reporters this afternoon that he would not be "in the business of ruling things out" when it comes to tackling obesity.
At a press conference in Hungary, Cameron said that while he would like to avoid imposing any new taxes, the government needed to act in the best interests of public health.
"I don't really want to put new taxes on to anything but we do have to recognise that we face potentially in Britain something of an obesity crisis when we look at the effect of obesity on not just diabetes but the effect on heart disease, potentially on cancer," Cameron said.
"Now, of course, it would be far better if we could make progress on all these issues without having to resort to taxes, that would be my intention but what matters is we do make progress.
"We shouldn't be in the business of ruling things out but obviously putting extra taxes on things is not something I aim to do, it's something I would rather avoid."
Cameron's comments come amid a new Cancer Research UK report estimating that rising levels of obesity could lead to around 700,000 new cases of cancer in the next 20 years.
The Times newspaper first reported this morning that while the government had initially ruled out a new tax on sugary drinks, ministers had decided to reconsider the measure in light of new evidence.
The Prime Minister's official spokeswoman refused to confirm the story earlier today, saying only: "Work is ongoing on this. We are concerned about the issue here, the need for more to be done on this."
The government is expected to publish a report on its efforts to curb rising obesity levels in the coming days.
MPs on the influential health select committee backed the new tax last November, saying in a report at the time that "bold and urgent action" was required to tackle childhood obesity.
Committee chair Sarah Wollaston, a GP who has been the Conservative MP for Totnes since 2010, said: "There are many causes and no one single or simplistic approach will provide the answer. We therefore urge the Prime Minister to make a positive and lasting difference to children’s health and life chances through bold and wide ranging measures within his childhood obesity strategy."
Free-market groups, meanwhile, have strongly objected to proposals for the tax. Christopher Snowdon from the Institute of Economic Affairs, said today: "Putting a tax on sugary drinks won't make us thinner, it will make us poorer.
"Aside from the tax being regressive and clobbering the poor, there is scant evidence such a measure has reduced obesity anywhere in the world. In Denmark a disastrous fat tax was quickly repealed after living costs increased and obesity levels were largely unchanged, whilst in Mexico a sugary drinks levy has reduced average calorie intake by just 6 calories per day.
"Instead of targeting one particular ingredient and product, the focus should be on educating society about what constitutes a balanced diet and allowing individuals to take responsibility for their own health."