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25.01.16

WHO backs sugar tax ahead of government childhood obesity strategy

The World Health Organization has backed the divisive plans to implement a sugar tax as a method of tackling childhood obesity as one of the conclusions from its two-year report into this global emergency.

Presented by the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, the report set the numbers on the “alarming levels” of childhood obesity across the world, with at least 41 million kids under five either overweight or obese.

The first of six recommendations was promoting healthier eating habits through comprehensive programmes and the contentious idea of a sugar tax, currently being considered by the government ahead of a final decision in the coming weeks.

Considerations for a sugar tax come as part of a government strategy to tackle obesity in the UK, where numbers are at their highest and growing.

Sir Peter Gluckman, the Commission’s co-chair, saying any strategy will require “increased political commitment”.

Opposing one of the centrepiece arguments for those against the taxation, such as Unilever’s boss, the WHO report said there is strong evidence suggesting that this method of combating obesity can be effective and feasible to implement.

“Further evidence will become available as countries that implement taxes on unhealthy foods and/or sugar-sweetened beverages monitor their progress,” the report said.

Late last year, MPs on the influential Health Select Committee backed the idea of a 20% taxation system, as well as endorsed more regulation of the food and drink industry and more power for councils to tackle childhood obesity.

Even the prime minister himself, who was initially opposed to the plan, indicated earlier this month that a U-turn could be on the horizon as he admitted he does not want to rule out the option if it proves itself necessary.

Responding to today’s report, the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing spokesperson, Cllr Izzi Seccombe, also reiterated the argument that obesity places a £5bn yearly drain on the NHS.

“We call on the government, working with councils and the NHS, to use the forthcoming child obesity strategy to come forward with ambitious and challenging proposals to tackle the child obesity crisis facing our communities,” she said.

“Councils and the NHS cannot do it all alone. The key to tackling obesity, which is costing the NHS more than £5bn every year, is investing in prevention. This saves money for other parts of the public sector by reducing demand for hospital, health and social care services, and improves the public’s health.”

Other central recommendations in the report included promoting physical activity, integrating and strengthening guidance for the prevention of noncommunicable diseases with guidance on preconception and antenatal care, provide support for healthy early childhood diets, and improving school environments and physical activity programmes.

Separately, NHS England boss Simon Stevens revealed last week that he is planning on adding a sugar tax to food and drink sold across NHS providers by 2020 to discourage staff, patients and visitors from buying sugary snacks. This would make the NHS the first public body in the UK to impose a sugar levy, with all proceeds intended to go towards improving the health of staff.

Commenting on today's WHO report, Stevens said: “The evidence is piling up that added sugar and excess calories are causing obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Responsible retailers are beginning to take action, but this needs to be reinforced and accelerated with a new no-holds-barred national strategy on obesity involving the NHS, government, industry and consumers.”

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