CMO Favours Taxing Junk Food to Subsidise Fruit & Veg

Peter Russell

December 21, 2018

The Government should be prepared to impose higher taxes on unhealthy foods high in salt and sugar and use the proceeds to make fruit and vegetables more affordable, England's chief medical officer said.

In her annual report, Health 2040 – Better Health Within Reach, Prof Dame Sally Davies called for improvements to the environment people live in, promoting a society which prioritised health "as one of the nation's primary assets", and making it easier for people to choose healthy options.

She noted that with 50% of the disease burden in England due to four modifiable health behaviours – poor diet, tobacco, drinking too much alcohol, and physical inactivity – there was plenty of scope to improve public health.

Looking ahead 20 years, Dame Sally concluded there were reasons to be optimistic for the future but also concerns of a growing health divide in which the gap between life expectancy and healthy life expectancy could worsen for the most deprived communities.

Although those inequalities had worsened from 2001-2016, she insisted on Twitter that: "A more equal, healthier society is within our grasp but we need to be brave, bold and seize the moment."

Sugar and Salt

She called on the Government to ensure it set a specific target to halve current inequalities in childhood obesity by 2030 or sooner.

Dame Sally said it was time to build on the success of the soft drinks levy to further protect against obesity and diet-related diseases.

She recommended extending the levy to sweetened milk-based drinks containing added sugar, and eliminate added sugar in commercial infant and baby foods.

A consistent approach to reducing salt consumption had led to an 11% reduction in salt intake, but since 2011 progress had stalled. Dame Sally said she wanted to see the Government in partnership with Public Health England set more ambitious targets for salt reduction, particularly in the out-of-home sector, including restaurant food and takeaways, which had lagged behind.

Failure to comply by food manufacturers and suppliers should be backed up by the threat of mandatory action, including front of pack labelling, Dame Sally said.

The Government should also work with local authorities to find ways to encourage healthier food on the high street and in areas around schools.

"We must not allow a situation where we look back on this era and regret allowing less effective policies to be implemented because they were either easier or avoided facing difficult trade-offs," she said.

'No Evidence' That Extra Taxes Will Change Behaviour

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said its members had reduced average calorie content by 5.5% and sugar content by 12.1% over the last 5 years. It said its salt reduction efforts had been described as ‘world-leading’.

Kate Halliwell, FDF's head of UK diet and health policy, said the industry recognised that more needed to be done, but that manufacturers needed to overcome "considerable technical challenges" because, for instance, "sugar plays a variety of roles beyond sweetness in food, including colour, texture and consistency".

Referring to ‘wrong-headed legislation,’ she added: "There is no evidence that additional food taxes can change consumer behaviours over the long-term."

Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt said: "We strongly support the call by the chief medical officer for mandated targets for salt, sugar, and calories, particularly given the very weak approach of PHE [Public Health England] in enforcing the current voluntary programmes."

Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation commented: "Heart and circulatory diseases present a formidable test to this country in the coming decades, and we agree with the chief medical officer that a focus on prevention will pay dividends, whether this is getting air pollution under control or tackling childhood obesity.

"As a country, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels, as without radical action on prevention, we could even see a resurgence of heart attacks and strokes in the years to come."


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.
Post as: