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Doctors call for fizzy drinks tax

Coalition of medical colleges calls for drastic action to stem UK's obesity crisis

Mark Gould

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which represents nearly every doctor in the UK, has called for a 20 per cent tax on fizzy drinks and for junk food advertising to be banished until after the watershed in a bid to halt the country's obesity crisis.

Its report ‘Measuring Up; The Medical Profession's Prescription for the Nation's Obesity Crisis said levels of obesity represented “a public health crisis” and that, with current measures failing, unhealthy foods should be treated more like cigarettes. The report also calls for a ban on fast food outlets being located near schools.

The UK is one of the most obese nations in the world with about a quarter of adults classed as obese. That figure is predicted to double by 2050 - a third of primary school leavers are already overweight.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges describes itself as a "united front" of the medical profession from surgeons to GPs and psychiatrists to paediatricians. It says its doctors are seeing the consequences of unhealthy diets every day and that it has never come together on such an issue before.

The report presents an action plan for future campaigning activity, setting out 10 recommendations for healthcare professionals, local and national government, industry and schools which it believes will help tackle the nation’s obesity crisis.

Recommendations 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%, to be piloted
  • 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

Professor Terence Stephenson, a paediatrician and chair of the Academy, said: “As health professionals, we see it [obesity] across all our disciplines – from the GP’s surgery to the operating table and everything in between. So it is no exaggeration to say that it is the biggest public health crisis facing the UK today. Yet too often, vested interests dub it too complex to tackle.

“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.”

He added: “Today’s report marks the start of a campaign. We’ll be working with a range of expert individuals and organisations to take each of these recommendations forward. The healthcare profession has taken the step of uniting to take action – and we’re calling on others to step up and take responsibility too.” 

He said there was no "silver-bullet" for tackling obesity, instead the entire culture around eating needed to change to make it easier to make healthy decisions.

"I choose what I eat or whether I smoke, what people have told us is they want help to swim with the tide rather than against the current to make the healthy choice the easy one," he said.

Professor Sue Bailey, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which collaborated on the report, said she was particularly pleased that it highlights the inextricable link between physical and mental health.

"We know that unhealthy lifestyles are associated with depression and anxiety and severe mental illness, and that physical illnesses can be associated with psychological distress.

"Poor mental health underlies risk behaviours, including lack of exercise, unhealthy eating and obesity. We also know that obesity is more common in people with major depression, bipolar disorder, panic disorder and agoraphobia," she said.

But Terry Jones, from the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents manufacturers, said the report "seems to be a damp squib and to add little to an important debate".

"The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has presented as its recommendations, a collection of unbalanced ideas apparently heavily influenced by single issue pressure groups," he said.

"FDF had hoped that today's report would have looked seriously at how the food industry and the medical profession would have worked together to tackle obesity, and genuinely brought new insights to bear on how to empower healthier choices and change behaviour to deliver better long-term public health outcomes. This report fails to do that," he said.

Gavin Partington, the director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, rejected the idea that a tax on soft drinks, which it said contributed "just 2%" of the total calories in the average diet, would address a problem "which is about overall diet and levels of activity and lifestyles".

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