Public Health England (PHE) has published its long-awaited plans for sugar reduction, after being at the centre of a storm over health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s decision to delay the report.

Among its key recommendations, the report calls for a price increase of a minimum of 10-20% on high sugar products (such as full-sugar soft drinks) through the use of a tax or levy. It cites emerging evidence of the positive impact of such measures in other countries such as Mexico, though it adds a sugar tax should not be a priority for government. 

More urgent priorities include a clampdown on promotions of high sugar foods in supermarkets, convenience stores and the out of home sector.

PHE also urges the government to “significantly reduce “ opportunities to advertising high sugar food to adults and children, including a crackdown on sponsorship.

Other recommended include:

  • · setting a clear definition for high sugar foods by extending and strengthening the Ofcom nutrient profiling model
  • · Introduction of a broad, structured and transparently monitored programme of gradual sugar reduction in everyday food and drink products, combined with reductions in portion size
  • · Revamping government buying standards for food and catering services across the public sector, including national and local government and the NHS
  • · Ensuring accredited training in diet and health in the catering, fitness and leisure sectors
  • · Raising awareness of concerns around sugar levels in the diet to the public as well as health professionals

The report follows the publication of the SACN review in July, which called for the nation’s recommended sugar consumption to be halved to no more than 5% of energy intake and claimed thousands of deaths could be avoided if that target were met.

PHE’s report lays much of the blame on the industry for promoting foods high in sugar, naming a clampdown on promotions as its number one objective.

Research commissioned by Kantar Worldpanel showed the UK food industry spent £256 million in 2014 promoting ‘unhealthy’ foods sold in retail alone, it said.

“While these multimillion pound investments are themselves testament to their expected impact in relation to product sales, the behavioural and health impact of these approaches, particularly on children, has been of concern for some time,” says the report.

But the report also makes the case for a tax on sugar-added soft drinks, based on research carried out by Teesside University.

Based on 11 main studies, the report claims a tax of between 10% and 20% would be necessary to have a “significant impact on purchases, consumption and ultimately population health.” It cites a 6% reduction in purchases of sugar-added drinks in Mexico in the first years of a tax, with reduction of up to 9% among the poorest households.

However, it admits there are “limitations to the data” and a lack of evidence on the long-term impact of taxation.

“This is too serious a problem to be solved by approaches that rely only on individuals changing their behaviour in response to health education and marketing, or the better provision of information on our food,” concludes the report.

“The environmental drivers of poor diets we face are just too big.

“Implementing a broad, structured programme of parallel measures to reduce the impact of influences that increase consumption, reduce the sugar content of food and drinks, and support people in making healthier choices through information and education, would be likely to achieve meaningful reductions in sugar intakes across the population.”


Industry reactions

Food and Drink Federation director general Ian Wright said: “We welcome the publication today of PHE’s report since all policy-making should be evidence based.

“The food and drink industry is determined to play its part in tackling childhood obesity. Steps are already in hand to ensure that high fat, salt and sugar foods will not be advertised to children. Likewise, the industry has already removed millions of calories from the food chain and will continue to make progress on this through reformulation and changes to portion/pack sizes.

“It may also be possible, by negotiation, to improve the definition of ‘high sugar foods’ as the report suggests.

“However, we do not agree that the international evidence supports the introduction of a sugar tax and for this reason would oppose such a move.”

Gavin Partington, director General of the British Soft Drinks Association, said: “We welcome the publication of the PHE evidence and recognise industry has a role to play in tackling obesity.

“We support efforts to ensure HFSS drinks are not advertised to children and have led the way in reducing calories – down 7.5% across the soft drinks market since 2012.

By contrast the tax in Mexico has resulted in an average reduction of only 6 calories per day from diets, which seems unlikely to have a major impact on levels of obesity.”

Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator of Children’s Food Campaign, said:“Finally all politicians, as well as parents, teachers and the food industry, have the opportunity to look at the evidence themselves and understand why tough measures to tackle the marketing, advertising and promotion of less healthy food and drink to children and their families are necessary.

“All options should be on the table to protect children’s health. So it is irresponsible of the government to continue to refuse to consider a sugary drinks tax, especially now Public Health England’s lists it as one of their eight areas for action. “