“The Government has no plans to introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages,” said a statement made by the Department of Health. "The Government has committed to a tax lock to avoid raising the cost of living and to promote UK productivity and economic growth, however, the Government keeps all taxes under review, with decisions being a matter for the Chancellor as part of the Budget process."
Instead it was considering a range of measures to tackle childhood obesity and would look at what contributions government, industry, families and communities could make. These measures would be announced by the end of the year.
The online petition, launched by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, called for a 7 p tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and garnered more than 100,000 signatures in its first two days. Signatories have been waiting 17 days for a debate date to be announced.
Ian Wright, director general of industry trade group Food Drink Federation (FDF), welcomed the decision, saying a tax would have hit low-income families without improving the nations’ health.
“Jamie Oliver and his followers have an important contribution to make but the focus on a sugar tax is misplaced. So we are pleased that the Government has definitively ruled it out.”
Wright said that food and drink companies were actively playing their part in taking on obesity through commitments on reformulation, portion sizes, responsible marketing and community interventions. Regulatory tools were anti-competitive, damaged UK productivity and threatened investment, he said.
“Obesity will only be beaten by a national partnership involving Government, the NHS and health professionals, schools, retailers, restaurants and food and drink producers. For goodness sake let's crack on with creating it,” he said.
But Malcolm Clark from the Children's Food Campaign said the government’s refusal to consider a sugar tax was absurd.
“The [petition] had over 100,000 signatures within 48 hours, and continues to gather more. There is real public appetite for robust measures which will make a difference, rather than a rehash of the failed responsibility deal which has not," he said.
Irish government tight-lipped
Meanwhile the Irish government, which is also in the process of developing an Obesity Policy and Action Plan, has remained tight-lipped on the details of the policy, but the Irish Times reported last week that it may include mandatory reduction targets for salt, sugar and fat reduction.
When contacted by this publication a spokesperson for the Department of Health declined to comment, but said the Department was meeting with industry to evaluate the progress made on voluntary reformulation which was “generally welcome but taking longer than anticipated.”
Trade group Food and Drink Industry Ireland (FDII) said that industry had made good progress on a salt reduction programme, in place since 2005, and that most food companies had been gradually reducing fat, sugar and salt from their products.
The UK and Ireland have the worst rates of obesity in the world, with nearly 90% of Irish men and 70% of British men on track to be overweight or obese by 2030 according to predictions by the World Health Organisation.