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Policy Exchange - James Cracknell argues for a tax on sugary drinks

New think tank paper lists a series of ideas to prevent the rise of obesity and promote physical activity

A tax on sugary drinks should be introduced as part of a series of measures to combat rising levels of obesity in the UK, according to a Policy Exchange report published yesterday.

The report, authored by double Olympic gold medallist, James Cracknell OBE, says that while a sugary drinks tax is not a magic bullet, but with soft drinks providing 29% of daily sugar for 11-18 year olds, it is on balance a sensible intervention to help prevent the rise in obesity, especially among children. He argues that any revenue raised through the new tax should be spent on preventing obesity rather than treatment.

Cracknell points to evidence in the British Medical Journal which found that when Mexico introduced a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in 2014, purchases fell by 12% in the first year. He says that where there are very strong arguments against a general sugar tax, there is increasingly less resistance among the public to imposing one on sugary drinks, especially as recent research points to one sugary drink a day being linked to a 30% increase in high-risk body fat.

Alongside the introduction of a sugary drinks tax, the report makes a number of other recommendations including:

  • using teaspoons as a unit of measurement on food and drinks packaging to ensure people know how much sugar is contained within an item of shopping;
  • introducing an annual BMI check for children from 4 to 11 to get a true picture of how they are developing;
  • increasing awareness of the Healthy Start scheme for the 20% of people who are pregnant or who have children under 4 and are not using their free vouchers to purchase essential items such as milk or fruit.

Cracknell also argues that the public discourse over obesity has to move on from simply one of weight to well-being. He says that letters sent to parents effectively ‘fat shaming’ their children have a detrimental effect on that individual, contributing to other physical and mental health illnesses such as anorexia. 

Instead of naming and shaming children, he proposes that schools provide parents with advice linked to encouraging more sleep, physical exercise and eating nutritious meals. He also says Public Health England needs to do more to explore the issue of underweight children as evidence suggests people are more likely to die when clinically underweight than overweight. 

James Cracknell, author of the report, said:

“1 in 5 children leaving primary school are obese and critically, of those 11 year olds, 82% will go on to be obese adults. This is a national crisis that has severe ramifications on peoples’ lives and on society as a whole.

“The human misery and drain on the public finances is so great that the government has no option but to intervene to give people who are severely obese the help they desperately need. There will be inevitable opposition to what will be labelled as nannying, but the same was true of the reaction to legislation on seat belts and drink-driving.

“At the same time, it is important to introduce a range of other measures to combat obesity including clear and easy to understand labelling on food and drink packaging and more incentives for schools to run breakfast clubs.”

Related Publication

Britain Imbalanced

Britain Imbalanced lists a series of ideas to promote physical activity and prevent the rise of obesity. Double Olympic gold medalist James Cracknell proposes that schools should provide parents with advice linked to encouraging more sleep, physical exercise and eating nutritious meals. He also says Public Health England needs to do more to explore the issue of underweight children as evidence suggests people are more likely to die when clinically underweight than overweight. 

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