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Why the sugar tax won’t cure obesity

Last week, Public Health England boldly proposed a 20% levy on full-sugar soft drinks. Many MPs joined in, urging the government to bring in relevant legislation.

Those in favour of the proposed tax pointed out that Mexico has seen consumption of fizzy drinks fall by 12% after a 10% levy was issued in January 2014. It’s way too early to say whether this has improved waistlines or dental records but it certainly can’t do any harm. Over 30% of the Mexican population are obese and they are passionate about fizzy drinks. According to some reports, the average Mexican drinks almost half a litre of Coke a day.

Critics of the UK’s proposed tax say it would effectively be a ‘tax on the poor’, who are heavy consumers of fizzy drinks. This argument grows weaker in the wake of evidence that children from the poorest families are twice as likely to become obese as their more affluent classmates. Regardless of its merits, the ‘taxing the poor’ argument is certainly nothing new. Not so long ago, it was used when the government imposed huge tax hikes on cigarettes and, much later, bargain booze.

Of course, when the 2007 smoking ban was brought in, many railed on the ‘nanny state’ for interfering with people’s personal liberties. Yet today, with smoking no longer the major health crisis it had been for decades, few question the wisdom of the government’s combative approach to a deadly habit, which posed a huge financial burden to the NHS. Back in 1962, 70% of men and 40% of women smoked. Today, just 22% of men and 17% of women indulge in the evil weed.

Now, our focus has shifted. In 2015 the UK’s biggest health crisis is unquestionably obesity. In the last 30 years, rates have tripled, with one in four adults now deemed clinically obese. Many parties are being blamed – the food industry, the advertising industry, a modern culture of snacking and cheap takeaways – along with fat people themselves, who are typically portrayed as gluttonous, lazy and weak-willed.

The truth is that obesity is a complex issue and there are many contributory factors. A range of measures will need to be considered if we are to see any reversal in obesity rates.

But sugar seems like an easy place to start, particularly as the world is finally waking up to the fact that so much of our cheaply-produced, abundant food is absolutely riddled with white stuff.  

Our bodies were simply not designed for mass sugar consumption. Over-consuming can send us haywire, leading to energy highs followed by dramatic lows, restlessness, irritability and anxiety. Over time, bingeing on sugar can also batter the liver and trigger diabetes type 2. Those of us more prone to vanity will be horrified to learn that sugar is thought to accelerate the ageing process, slowing down the production of collagen and elastin in our skin.

Yet, we still can’t get enough. Some scientists say this is because sugar is as addictive as alcohol and drugs, with brain scans demonstrating that it lights up the same reward centres in our grey matter.

More worrying still is the fact that sweets, chocolate and fizzy drinks are particularly popular with the youngest members of our society. They account for almost a third of the sugar intake of 11- to 18-year-olds and 16% for younger children. Overall, children consume three times more sugar than is recommended. Current health guidelines recommend that those aged between four and six have a maximum of five sugar cubes (19g) and older children have no more than six sugar cubes (24g). Just one can of original Coke has over nine sugar cubes (39g).

So, by all means, it certainly won’t do any harm bringing in a 20% tax on fizzy drinks. Whether this will mark a progressive raid on all sorts of products containing excessive amounts of sugar including various breads, sauces, fruit juices and soups remains to be seen. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that obesity is far more than a food problem. It all starts in the mind.

Ask any obese person why they overeat and they will commonly say it’s for comfort, escape, reward, pleasure. Food is an opiate for the masses and sugar the most instant fix.

So if anyone, anywhere, is serious about stemming the obesity crisis long-term they need to look at why people overeat rather than just what they eat. Reducing the obesity crisis to what should or shouldn’t go into our mouths is missing the much bigger picture.