"This is too serious a problem to be solved by approaches that rely only on individuals changing their behaviour in response to health education and marketing, or the better provision of information on our food. The environmental drivers of poor diets we face are just too big," it says.
The report gives eight recommendations, one of which - a sugar tax - has sparked much debate about its efficacy in reducing sugar consumption and combatting the obesity crisis. But the report's authors say any significant progress to reduce sugar intake would yield benefits.
PHE's recommended action plan
1. Reduce the number and type of price promotions.
2. Reduce and restrict marketing of sugary food and drink to children and adults across all media and through sponsorship.
3. Set clear definition for high sugar foods.
4. Reformulate to reduce sugar content and cut portion sizes.
5. Set a 10-20% tax on high sugar products.
6. Boost the supply and sale of healthier foods in public spaces such as hospitals.
7. Give proper diet and health-related training to those in a position to influence food choices, such as the catering sector.
8. Raise awareness and provide practical steps to help people lower their sugar intake.
Although a spokesperson for David Cameron said the prime minister had not changed his view that there were better ways to deal with obesity than a sugar tax, Conservative MP Boris Johnson said he was considering giving it his backing. "Overwhelmingly the people who will be most affected by an obesity problem will be those on the lowest incomes. That's why I'm thinking about sugar taxes and whether London should be leading on that," he told attendees at an NHS event.
Director general of Food and Drink Federation Ian Wright welcomed the report, saying that all policy-making should be evidence-based and that the food industry had already taken steps through reformulation and commitments to ensure unhealthy foods are not advertised to children. “It may also be possible, by negotiation, to improve the definition of 'high sugar foods' as the report suggests. [But] we do not agree that the international evidence supports the introduction of a sugar tax and for this reason would oppose such a move.“
Meanwhile The Guardian reported Mary Barnard, president of the northern European arm of US group Mondelez International as saying sugar taxes, such as the Danish sin tax, did not drive consumer change.
“Can we do more on health? Yes, and we should do more, but there is also a role for treats in everyday life. I would hate to see food losing the joy that Cadbury has been about for decades.”
Prof. Richard Tiffin, director of the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading, said he remained unconvinced of the evidence for a tax on sweetened drinks.
“The report highlights the impact of soft drinks taxes in France, America, and elsewhere, but does not put much emphasis on economic analysis. While such taxes do encourage high consumers of sugary drinks to buy less, the calories that come from soft drinks are relatively small, meaning that an individual’s overall consumption of calories does not fall by much.
Tiffin was involved in a study published in the British Medical Journal which calculated that a 20% tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would result in a 1-2% fall in obesity rates – “a small benefit for a tax that hits poor people hardest,” he said.
Dr Julian Hamilton-Shield, professor of diabetes and metabolic endocrinology at the University of Bristol said: “If a tax is needed to reduce sugar consumption, I am right behind it. No one complains about tobacco taxation: sugar should be treated the same way.”
The report's authors say that if less than 5% of daily energy comes from free sugars - as recommended by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition - the National Health Service (NHS) would save £500 m (€693 m) per year.
Read the full report: