The government has been urged to carry out a sweeping crackdown on supermarket promotions after a report by Public Health England (PHE) found they were causing a major spike in sugar consumption.

The proposal is one of four key recommendations given to health secretary Jeremy Hunt in a PHE document called Sugar Reduction - The Evidence for Action, it was revealed at a health select committee hearing today.

The document has not been placed in the public domain yet, but PHE chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone revealed key details of it to MPs at the hearing on Tuesday (20 October).

The PHE document also showed there was evidence from a number of countries in favour of a tax on sugary drinks, she said, adding the higher the tax, the more effective it was.

However, PHE believed there were bigger priorities for the government to tackle, Tedstone said.

The first, Tedstone said, was the fact that promotions in supermarkets were skewed towards unhealthy products. A two-year study by Kantar Worldpanel, commissioned by PHE, showed 40% of food on sale in the UK was on promotion, and promotions were heavily skewed towards products high in salt, fat or sugar. The study suggested such promotional practices had contributed an extra 6% to sugar consumption in the UK, Tedstone said.

Tedstone told the committee that tackling the bias towards unhealthy food promoted in store was the number one recommendation in the PHE’s evidence review.

“We have looked at the balance of promotions in UK stores and they are highly targeted towards high sugar foods,” she said. “PHE are recommending that promotions need to be rebalanced.”

In recent years, the government has tried and failed to get agreement from retailers and suppliers under the Responsibility Deal for a voluntary programme of action on in-store promotions.

MPs were told voluntary moves by the likes of Tesco, Aldi and Lidl to ban so-called “guilt lanes” had gone nowhere near far enough.

Sugar tax

The other top priorities PHE is calling for include a crackdown on the “deep and consistent” marketing of “unhealthy” food towards children. It is also urging the food industry to do much more on reformulation.

Tedstone also confirmed PHE’s report came down in favour of a tax on sugary drinks, after research from 11 countries, including Mexico, France and Hungary, showed fiscal measures “universally” helped cut consumption.

“PHE do see that there is a role for a fiscal approach,” she said. “Universally these assessments showed that a tax decreases purchases.”

“We’ve seen data from Mexico’s tax of sugar added drinks to show it brought about a 6% reduction in consumption of these products in the first year.”

However, Tedstone admitted much of the research around the impact of a sugar tax was “experimental” and said there was a lack of evidence about the long-term effectiveness of such policies.

“Fiscal measures have a big health halo effect when they are first introduced,” she said. “We don’t know whether that is sustainable.”

Industry reactions

Reacting to PHE’s calls for action, Ian Wright, director feneral at the FDF, said a sugar tax would fly in the face of the government’s promises to be pro-business and urged for the continuation of a voluntary approach to reformulation.

“Sugar-sweetened drinks are already subject to a 20% tax through VAT which raises billions each year,” he said.

“Industry reformulation, responsible marketing commitments and shifting consumer demand have caused consumption of no and low sugar drinks to outstrip sales of regular,” added Wright. “This long-term trend has been achieved without the need for discriminatory taxes. Government maintains that a comprehensive approach including a partnership with industry and others is the answer to tackling obesity, not new taxes.”

Gavin Partington, director general of the BSDA, added: “Although we await the PHE evidence, the respected McKinsey report tells us that reformulation would be eight times more effective than a tax on HFSS products and changes in portion size ten times more effective. Indeed it also showed that educating parents would be five times more effective.

“The soft drinks sector has demonstrated this by leading the way on reformulation and expanding product choice. This has already achieved a 7.5% reduction in calories consumed from soft drinks between 2012 and the start of 2015. By contrast the tax in Mexico has resulted in a reduction of only 6 calories per day from their diet.”