We must tax sugar before Britain eats itself to death
Published by The Daily Mail (19th September, 2014)
Mr Cube played a big role in my childhood. Not only did he help fund my schooling and summer holidays, but he also filled my house with all manner of sweet delights, syrupy treats and sickly treacles.
For my father was an executive with Tate & Lyle, the country’s leading sugar manufacturer, whose packets were decorated with the famous cartoon cube figure.
Every now and then, arriving home from his office, he would deliver the firm’s latest innovation from his briefcase for our testing. As a young boy, I devoured these sugary creations, which I imagined came from some Willy Wonka-style factory overseen by the friendly-looking Mr Cube.
Back in the Sixties and early Seventies, of course, most of the rest of my diet was prepared by my mother or school dinner ladies and, like other children, I spent long hours running around parks and playing fields.
In those days, fast food was a soggy cheese and tomato sandwich. Today, my son laughs when I tell him I can recall my first McDonald’s, savouring those famous burgers as if they were haute cuisine.
How innocent such times seem compared with now, when most children spend hours each day staring at screens, fast-food outlets litter high streets and advertising constantly beseeches us to buy sweet treats.
The result? Obesity has become a national crisis threatening to overwhelm the Health Service, which is being forced to treat ever-growing numbers of patients with weight problems and associated health problems so severe they end up in hospital.
No one should be under any illusion about the scale of the gargantuan challenge this crisis presents.
Just listen to Simon Stevens, the smart new chief executive of the National Health Service, who this week warned that obesity is ‘a slow-motion car crash’ that threatens to cripple an already overburdened service. ‘If as a nation we keep piling on the pounds around the waistline, we’ll be piling on the pounds in terms of future taxes needed just to keep the NHS afloat,’ he said.
As politicians talk of raising taxes to further fund the NHS, and hospitals fall into debt, diabetes alone is already draining £1 in every ten spent on healthcare, and excess weight causes almost one in four deaths from heart disease.
Meanwhile, fizzy drinks and sweets are causing a surge in tooth decay, with 500 children admitted to hospital each week with rotting teeth. Health trusts have to splash out on super-size ambulances and £8,000 beds to cope with patients weighing up to 78st.
Alarmingly, this could be just the beginning, as a tidal wave of avoidable ‘lifestyle’ diseases swamps the NHS.
Shockingly, in clinical terms a quarter of British adults and a fifth of children are obese — numbers which have doubled in the past two decades. In total, two-thirds of British men and more than half the nation’s women are considered to be overweight, which presents a greater threat to public health than smoking.
As a result, we have a generation of children who, because of their diet, their weight and their inactivity, could live shorter lives than their parents and grandparents — which would turn around historic trends of longer life expectancy.
Britain’s obesity problems are among the worst in Europe — but this is a global concern, as is all too evident on streets from Baltimore to Beijing and Cape Town to Cairo.
Forget the tired old cliches pushed by the foreign aid industry: two-thirds of the world’s overweight people are now found in poorer countries, where more people now go to bed having consumed too many calories than go to bed hungry.
The question, of course, is how to turn the tide — something that defeated every one of the 188 countries studied in a recent Lancet investigation of global obesity over the past three decades.
I used to think the solution was simple when I started to see more and more unsightly mountains of fat and flesh wobbling through British towns and cities: they should eat less and exercise more.
And so they should — this remains the best dietary advice available. Yet blaming gluttony and slothfulness alone will not solve a problem of such severity.
Public warnings from the Government and health experts have had some impact. Sales of fizzy drinks, for instance, have fallen over the past six months, while shoppers are buying fewer bags of sugar and more fresh fruit.
Yet, thanks to the addition of so much sugar in processed food and drink, the amount of ‘invisible’ sugar ending up in the bellies of Britons has risen by almost a third over the past two decades.
This has made doctors increasingly desperate in their calls for action. Some even argue sugar is addictive, having a similar impact on the brain’s reward circuits as drugs such as cocaine.
Certainly, it’s clear many obese patients get locked into a tragic and ever-worsening spiral of depression, low self-esteem and compulsive over-eating. This is why bariatric surgery — the fitting of gastric bands — may prove ultimately to be the most cost-efficient treatment.
One obese woman told me how she would binge in fast-food joints then pretend not to be hungry at home, while her soaring weight mystified her family. Her growing size made her more miserable, which led her to gorge even more on burgers, chips and fried chicken.
So what is to be done?
Instinctively, I recoil at nanny-state diktats, lectures from politicians (of all people) over how to live our lives, and the idea of government intervention unless absolutely necessary. But the health crisis unfolding before our eyes demands urgent action — even if it has to be forced on us through legislation.
There is a recent precedent which convinces me there is a solution: the war on smoking has shown that social habits can be changed.
The imposition of hefty taxes on the cost of cigarettes, along with a smoking ban in public places, has saved thousands of lives — along with millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money that might have been wasted on treating smoking-related diseases.
Smoking peaked in 1974, but since then has slumped. Last year alone, sales of manufactured cigarettes fell in this country by another 11 per cent.
Now we need to do something similar to save the nation — and its health service — from drowning in a sea of fat.
This means taking on the food industry and imposing significant taxes on all that lethal sugar they stuff into their wares, even those such as dried fruit, cereals and yoghurts which are promoted as healthy products. We should also enforce tobacco-style warnings on food and drink packets, as well as wide-ranging advertising restrictions.
Manufacturers and retailers will howl about hitting the poor hardest with the rising prices that would probably result from such a tax, but the truth is that this is the very social group who are the biggest victims of obesity.
No doubt, politicians will prevaricate, fearing they will be blamed for putting up the cost of living. Naturally, they will also calculate that the cost of political inaction to the health of the nation — not to mention the NHS — will be felt long after they have left office.
But the introduction of a tax on sugar cannot wait. Ask yourself why Asda yesterday announced it was introducing a women’s size 32 in its shops, and what that says about the shape of our nation.
It pains me to argue for higher taxes on anything, let alone something so interwoven into my own life. But sometimes statistics do not lie. One government agency suggested that a 20 per cent tax on soft drinks alone could cut the number of overweight Britons by 250,000.
The curious thing about Tate & Lyle’s Mr Cube is that he was a very political figure, created in 1949 at a time when sugar was still rationed and Labour was threatening to nationalise the sugar industry.
When the sword-wielding character first appeared, he angrily attacked state control and promoted private enterprise in speech bubbles.
He symbolised a public mood seeking more freedom to enjoy the sweet things in life, even appearing in political cartoons alongside Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill.
But we live in very different times today — and we need to stop seeing sugar as something benign and cuddly. With apologies to Mr Cube and all that he stood for, the state must take action to confront something that has become a modern scourge.