The leader of Action on Sugar has called for all fizzy drinks to be hit with a new tax, even if they contain few or zero calories.
The new call, which is a major departure from the group’s policy of targeting just sugar-added drinks, came as MPs on the House of Commons Health Committee quizzed health lobbyists and industry leaders over how to tackle childhood obesity.
Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of AOS and professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, claimed there was growing evidence artificially sweetened diet drinks added to obesity figures, because they retained consumers’ taste for sweet-tasting products.
“The people who have artificial sweeteners don’t seem to lose the weight they should and that may be because of the sweeteners,” he said. “We’re all used to those very sweet things now. That increases calorie consumption, there’s growing evidence for that.”
The move puts AOS at odds with other health groups such as the BMA and Sustain, which want a sugar tax to be targeted at sugar-added drinks.
Professor MacGregor said once in place the tax should be steadily increased.
“Once you start it you gradually screw it up, like we did with cigarettes,” he said. “There’s now something like an 800% tax on cigarettes and we’re quite happy with that.”
He has accused the food and drink industry of “acting like dinosaurs” by failing to respond to calls for reformulation.
MacGregor told MPs health secretary Jeremy Huntwas “doing absolutely nothing” to tackle childhood obesity, despite having had what he claimed was at least 10 meetings with health campaigners calling for a tax.
The government has repeatedly dismissed calls to bring in a sugar tax.
The extension of AOS’s war to artificial sweeteners follows the publication of a report in the BMJ in July, by researchers from the University of Cambridge, which warned of a link with diabetes, despite admitting its findings were based on “low quality” evidence.
One expert, Professor Jack Winkler, emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, described the report as “one of the worst things I’ve ever read”.
Responding to the latest call by the AOS leader, Gavin Partington, director general of the BSDA, said: “The bitter truth about Professor MacGregor has now been exposed. He wants to put a tax on soft drinks that contain neither sugar nor calories, which is punishing all consumers.
“Low and no-calorie drinks have been scientifically proven to help consumers control their weight in a safe and enjoyable way. Professor MacGregor appears to be addicted to tax rather than practical steps to help people reduce their calorie intake.”