The Sugar Tax…I love joined up thinking

I love joined up thinking on building a healthy, economically thriving population. Unfortunately my penchant for analysing everything that comes in my direction tells me that’s not what we got today on sugar.

A taxing issue

The Chancellor has announced in the Budget, within the last couple of hours, a levy on the manufacturers of sugar sweetened drinks. I nearly fell off my chair. There are various bits of various devils to be included in detail but:

  • it will be graded,
  • it will come in two years from now,
  •  there will be a consultation (but basically we know it’ll happen)
  • it will raise £530m for spending on school sports
  • some drinks may be banned altogether
  • Some speculation breakfast clubs included (good idea and wholeheartedly support this)

A victory for public health, I hear some acclaim. Well, I can agree that health motives were stated as front and centre in the Chancellor’s thinking today on this one.

But a victory?  I’m not so sure.  A little cool-headed policy analysis suggests to some of us that this is only one measure – however welcome it is – among a range of measures we need to get our population to a healthy weight.

The Cabinet Minister and Paymaster General Matt Hancock MP is saying on BBC news as I write this  that the evidence for sugar tax is “pretty strong, and overwhelming.” I think that’s a little overstated. The evidence suggests a tax would lead to reduction in consumption, but we also need other measures too. The BBC suggest this is a government turnaround from what was said earlier in the year.

What’s good about this

It’s great that money is being pumped into school sport. Sport is great for children for all sorts of biological, psychological and social reasons. Wonderful!  A rousing cheer. Brilliant move. I couldn’t be happier in and of itself just because of the wonderful benefits physical activity can bring to physical, cognitive and social development of young people. And putting some money behind our vital schools in their role of socialising the future of our country – our children – is great. But let’s remember some schools are struggling to deliver free school meals with the money they have already.

Here comes the but…

But however welcome the £530m is, sport in and of itself is not the answer to obesity. It can and should be part of an answer. But a nuanced reading of the evidence suggests that however useful a tax might be it isnt a solution in and of itself .  This tax measure wasn’t nuanced. There are all sorts of sources of junk calories in childrens’ diets way beyond sugary drinks, and all sorts of influences to help us gain weight that no amount of sports lessons will outweigh. This tax wont touch any of that. We still need a joined up obesity strategy.

Diet is hugely important for healthy weight. Physical activity is also hugely important but no amount of sport will save you from an appalling diet. The best way to keep a healthy weight is eat right AND exercise, not just exercise.

So from my own public health perspective, the logic here feels a bit awry. I know others disagree with me. Spending more money on school sports is immensely welcome, but that  won’t replace the cuts to obesity programmes because of cuts in public health money.

We’ve had 16% cuts announced over four years to public health budgets, budgets which fund child healthy weight services. However much putting money into schools and school sports is something I think is great, it does feel like with one hand a significant amount of money at least some of which was being spent on effective obesity reduction interventions has been taken away, to be replaced by £530m from a tax source to fund something which however good it is will not of itself be even the major factor in getting our population back to a healthy weight.

Whatever else it is, this is not a victory for joined up public health, or joined up thinking.

Better ways of spending £530m

I don’t want to appear churlish; but  this in and of itself will not give us the answer to child obesity. We need other measures too, so we still await the obesity strategy coming later in the year.  Using the money to deliver whole school approaches to healthy weight (cooking classes, healthy eating across the day, engaging parents in those, physical activity across the day) would be better.

Please, Sir, I want some more…

Tomorrow we have the LGA national event to look at what we’d like from the Obesity Strategy.  Reformulation of food, access to services, ability of local councils to fund healthy weight services, whole school day approaches to nutrition and restrictions on marketing to kids. Local and National measures have to work together to reduce the growth in unhealthy weight. This tax, and the money it generates, is just one measure. And frankly I doubt it’s the most important.

If this tax is all we get, it will not deliver the change we need as a population. As one measure among others, it is welcome. But it isn’t comprehensive and we shouldnt be distracted by the fact that this is political move as much as it is a public health one.

It’s brilliant that government really wants to do something on keeping our population healthy. Now let’s have something more effective than this.


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