Sweet Mercy: Government drops all-out war on sugar but pushes ahead with its soft drinks levy

Francesca Washtell
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Sugary foods are still facing a government crackdown (Source: Getty)

The government has today scrapped the most draconian measures from its long-awaited childhood obesity strategy, but the Treasury will forge ahead with its levy on soft drinks dubbed the "sugar tax".

The department of health has pledged to work towards a 20 per cent reduction of sugar in foods and drinks that are popular with children, and to get primary school children active for at least an hour a day.

But anti-sugar activists expressed their dismay this morning, as they claim the crackdown does not nearly go far enough.

Campaign group Action on Sugar told City A.M. an earlier version of the childhood obesity strategy encouraged retailers to limit so-called "junk food" promotions and also included measures around sugary food advertising and marketing.

"The government has definitely backed down on some of the key policies in the report released today, which they were previously going to implement," Jenny Rosborough, campaign manager at Action on Sugar, said.

"We were disappointed when we saw a leaked copy of the report several weeks ago but this is even weaker, it's much worse. They have clearly responded to industry pressure."

Read more: Dolmio and Uncle Ben's should only be eaten "occasionally"

The Local Government Association's community wellbeing chief Izzi Seccombe said: "We have called for fundamental reforms, such as a mandatory reduction of sugar in soft drinks, better sugar labelling on food and drink products, calorie counts on menus in chain restaurants, and for councils to be given powers to ban junk food advertising near schools.

"It is disappointing that a number of these key asks have not been included in the plan and we will continue to press government for them to be introduced."

Anti-nanny state campaigners welcomed the government's drop of the most extreme sugar and unhealthy food curbs that had previously been mooted.

"It is welcome news that the government has dropped many of the more draconian and nanny statist measures that would only have served to bully families into line and restrict choice," Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said.

Read more: TaxPayers' Alliance slams government for its "bungled" sugar tax

"With the exception of the sugar tax, the government has rejected the more extreme proposals and that is to be welcomed," said Chris Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. "An advertising ban would have been catastrophic for broadcasters and restrictions on supermarket discounts would have punished people for trying to make ends meet."

Alongside the launch of the childhood obesity strategy, the Treasury today opened its sugar levy consultation.

The soft drinks levy, which was a surprise announcement in the March Budget, will place two bands of tax on sugary drinks. One band will be for total sugar content above five grams per 100 millilitres; a second, higher band will apply to the most sugary drinks with more than eight grams per 100 millilitres.

The levy consultation will question the definitions of added sugars and the approach to fruit juices in drinks, the treatment of dilutable cordials and syrups, as well as how to approach mixed products such as slushy drinks, among other topics.

Read more: Evidence from Mexico shows sugar tax won't be a cure for calorie intake

Soft drinks industry groups were quick to criticise the plan to move ahead with the tax.

"Given the economic uncertainty our country now faces we’re disappointed the government wishes to proceed with a measure which analysis suggests will cause thousands of job losses and yet fail to have a meaningful impact on levels of obesity," said Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association.

Earlier this week, Associated British Foods-owned British Sugar joined other businesses and industry groups calling on the government to scrap the sugar tax.

Members of the campaign, called Face the Facts, Can the Tax, employ more than 400,000 people across the country.

A report released earlier this month by Oxford Economics, which was funded by the British Soft Drinks Association, warned the tax will cost the UK economy £132m and threaten 4,000 jobs.

The same report argued the tax will have a cost saving of just five calories per person, per day.