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Coca-Cola Life has been drawn into the debate on sugary soft drinks

The Department of Health (DH) has highlighted fizzy soft drinks as “low hanging fruit” in its battle to reduce the nation’s sugar intake.

Officials from PHE, the executive body of the DH, presented a list of possible measures to the industry and health campaigners last week, including “binding targets” on reformulation, in-store switching promotions away from high sugar foods, reducing portion sizes, controls on marketing of foods high in sugar, and a continuation of the Responsibility Deal approach.

A leaked version of the proposals, seen by The Grocer, suggests a sugar tax could “drive reformulation or incentivise diversification”.

However, it warns of a “regressive” impact on income and “unintended consequences”, including the possibility of the industry swallowing the cost and a potential “increase in the use of alternative ingredients such as fats.”

The proposals are expected to form the basis of a new report commissioned by PHE and authored by the UK Health Forum to be published on 26 June - the same day as a much anticipated review by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) on the role of carbohydrates in the national diet.

However, the DH this week denied it was considering a sugar tax option. And an industry source called the proposals “a PR-driven exercise because DH and PHE expect Action on Sugar to roundly trash the SACN’s report.

“Ministers don’t want to go near a sugar tax, but at the same time the DH doesn’t want to be seen not to have been discussing it in the face of what will be another media storm.”

Nutritional lobby group Action on Sugar launched a renewed attack on fizzy drinks this week, claiming 79% contain six or more teaspoons of sugar per can.

It even attacked the launch of Cola-Cola Life, a new cola with a third less sugar than Coke that will go on sale from September, saying it “still contains more than four teaspoons of sugar”.

Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, countered: “Campaigners appear to have missed the 60% of soft drinks on the market that contain no added sugar and ignored the evidence that shows obesity arises from an imbalance of calories consumed and calories expended and is not caused by one particular ingredient.”