Will a ‘dream’ to tax unhealthy food become a reality?

Given the nature of her public statements, the industry shouldn't be surprised if, in a review commissioned by the government, England's chief medical officer recommends the taxing of unhealthy foods, writes David Burrows.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has commissioned England's chief medical officer (CMO) Professor Dame Sally Davies to “urgently review” what more can be done to help the government meet its ambition of halving childhood obesity by 2030. “If we want to see a real improvement to our children’s health we are going to have to use every tool in our arsenal,” said Hancock .

Davies will not publish her findings until September. However, her review got off to a controversial start – in an interview with the BBC she floated the idea of a tax on unhealthy food. “I want parents to be incentivised to buy healthy food,” she said. “We need to make sure that fresh fruit and vegetables are cheap. Maybe we have to subsidise them by charging more, by taxing unhealthy food.”

The Department of Health immediately downplayed the comments, according to a report in The Grocer. Given the success of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy Davies will undoubtedly seek views on the merits of extending the policy to food.

Indeed, her review is as much about identifying what interventions have worked so far as it is about any radical new measures. The roundtable she held in May to kick off the review could well have been tense – this isn’t the first time Davies has irked the food industry with what they see as headline-grabbing ideas.

Her annual report, published in December, planted the seed for an extended sugar tax. “I recommend that HM Government review the use of fiscal disincentives in relation to foods that are high in sugar and salt and also incentives to increase fruit and vegetable consumption,” she wrote. “We must not allow a situation where we look back on this era and regret allowing less-effective policies to be implemented because they were either easier or avoided facing difficult trade-offs.”

The following passage from the report is particularly telling: “Those who shape the environment for health should be held to account. We have seen promising first steps, but to fiscally optimise the food environment from producer to plate in order to encourage healthy dietary patterns to be the norm for all, we need sustained and effective action. This approach has to encourage more focus upon the quality, rather than quantity, of food produced and sold.”

At the time, Davies told the BBC that a tax on unhealthy food, with proceeds going to subsidise fruit and veg, was a “dream”. However, could her review now tip the balance from radical reverie to realistic regulation?

That will largely depend on who ends up in Number 10. Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury, has already accused Davies of trying to “moralise through the tax system”, according to the Daily Mail. The Food and Drink Federation has also long arguedthere is no evidence that additional food taxes can change consumer behaviours over the long term”.

Manufacturers are likely to be equally opposed to plain packaging for sweets, crisps and sugary drinks – an idea put forward by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in a new report published last week, which included a supportive quote from Davies. “This new proposal from the IPPR learns lessons from tobacco control. It has potential to be part of the solution to the obesity crisis and will be explored in my formal review of childhood obesity,” she said.

This would certainly be the kind of “outside the box” approach Davies claimed she is now looking for. “There are policies we know are effective, many of which this country is already putting into action. Now we must be bold and brave enough to keep going,” she said.

The government has already launched two chapters of its childhood obesity plan. It has also consulted on banning the sale of energy drinks to children, introducing mandatory calorie labelling in the out-of-home sector, and restricting promotions of products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) by location and by price.

So far, results have been mixed. The SDIL has got the childhood obesity plan off to a “rapid start”, according to a recent report. However, Public Health England’s (PHE) first assessment of progress on the government’s sugar reduction programme showed a 2% decrease in sugar against a 5% first-year target.  

PHE was also unable to provide any measure of progress at all for the out-of-home sector, citing limitations with the data. Its own analysis of products likely to be consumed in one go showed that foods such as cookies and muffins contained on average double the calories out-of-home as those produced by retailers and manufacturers.

The findings have led to accusations from other parts of the food industry that foodservice companies are not pulling their weight. Davies said in her annual report that “those sectors that damage health must pay for their harm or subsidise healthier choices”. And foodservice brands will want to note that she called them out as “lagging behind” on salt reductions. 

So, the industry should expect a whirlwind review with an ambitious – not to mention controversial – set of recommendations from the government’s CMO. “While we must all take some responsibility for our own health, encouraging individuals to make healthier choices in an environment tilted in favour of unhealthy behaviours has not been effective,” Davies said. The industry has been warned.

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