Doctors call for soft drink tax and junk food ad ban

Brands should be taxed for producing sugary soft drinks and banned from advertising junk food, a doctors group has demanded, in a bid to reduce the nation’s obesity levels.

Doctors fear “obesity epidemic’ is unstoppable unless brands do more to encourage healthier living.

The Academy of the Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC), which represents nearly every one of the 220,000 doctors in the UK, is demanding the Government and food manufacturers do more to promote a healthy lifestyle including a ban on advertising of foods high in saturated fats, sugar and salt before 9pm and a duty on all sugary soft drinks, which could increase the price by at least 20 per cent (see box).

It is urging the food and drink industry to help stop what it claims is “generation after generation falling victim to obesity-related illnesses and death”.

Professor Terence Stephenson, a paediatrician and chair of the AMRC, adds “too often vested interests [in soft drinks and junk food] dub it too complex to tackle” and called on “others to step up and take responsibility”.

He says: “It’s now time to stop making excuses and instead begin forging alliances, trying new innovations to see what works and acting quickly to tackle obesity head on – otherwise the majority of this country’s health budget could be consumed by an entirely avoidable condition.”

Recommendations from the report include:

  • Food-based standards to be mandatory in all UK hospitals 
  • A ban on new fast food outlets being located close to schools and colleges.
  • A duty on all sugary soft drinks, increasing the price by at least 20%.
  • Traffic light food labelling to include calorie information for children and adolescents – with visible calorie indicators for restaurants,  especially fast food outlets.
  • £100m in each of the next three years to be spent on increasing provision of weight management services across the country.
  • A ban on advertising of foods high in saturated fats, sugar and salt before 9pm.
  • Existing mandatory food- and nutrient-based standards in England to be statutory in free schools and academies.

The demands follow a year-long inquiry by the AMRC to identify a plan of action needed to end what it says is the UK being the “fat man of Europe”.

The ad industry, however, says existing scheduling restrictions are sufficient.

Ian Barber, director of communications at the Advertising Association, says: “We welcome the AMRC’s focus on what its members and other health professionals can do to help tackle obesity but where it takes a wider view, the evidence has been ignored.

“OFCOM’s recent review found no justification for a 9pm watershed. The impact of advertising on obesity is marginal and the placement and content of food ads is already strictly regulated.”

The recommendations were also dismissed by ISBA, the representative body for advertisers, which expressed its concern that of the ten recommendations to tackle obesity, only one of them involves medical intervention. It claims “one is about improving health care and the rest are political or social interventions.”

Ian Twinn, ISBA’s director of public affairs, says: “Obesity is real and a cause for concern, but the medics appear not to have looked at the evidence in calling for ad bans; instead they have used it as an excuse to grandstand.

“The medical colleges assert that there is evidence that ad restrictions are effective against rising obesity, the trouble is that the evidence does not exist.”

The report comes just weeks after the Government threatened to force brands to cut the sugar, fat and salt in their products if they do not do more voluntarily as part of its Responsibility Deal with the industry.