A week ago today the House of Commons held an important debate on childhood obesity, ahead of the Government strategy on tackling this worrying issue, which is expected to be published very shortly.
After taking part in last November’s House of Commons debate on calls for a tax on sugary drinks to improve the health of the nation’s children, I was very pleased to hear the Prime Minister’s announcement the other week that a fully worked-up programme tackling the issue of a sugar sweetened beverages tax will come later this year as part of this strategy.
This news comes after David Cameron previously ruled out such a tax, believing there were other avenues to explore first. But now, cutting down on consumption of sugary drinks looks set to be a very important issue in Westminster, as obesity rates continue to rise and there have recently been some suggestions of the Government moving their position.
As a passionate believer in keeping taxes as low as possible, I am reluctant to support the introduction of any new taxes. So when I was first approached about supporting the proposal of a tax on sugary drinks, I will admit, I was less than enthusiastic.
However, having been indirectly approached by Jamie Oliver through his ‘Fifteen Cornwall’ restaurant, which is located in my constituency, I went away and began investigating the issue more thoroughly.
The evidence I found was undeniable, and my opinion on the tax shifted. The reality is that we have an immediate childhood obesity crisis in our country.
A third of children leave primary school overweight and a quarter of children in some parts of the country leave primary school obese. One of the most shocking statistics I found is that the most frequent reason for children of primary school age being admitted to hospital is for tooth extraction because of decay.
It is shocking that we accept that in modern Britain. By letting this tide of preventable disease go unchecked, we are storing up a health crisis of cardiovascular disease and cancer for the future and failing to protect the heart health of future generations.
While I passionately oppose the nanny state and to the Government interfering in people’s lives any more than they absolutely need to, as I have looked into the issue more and more, I have reached the position where I find the evidence compelling: something needs to be done.
It is clear that a tax on sugary drinks alone is not going to solve all our problems, but I have been persuaded that it should be part of the fight. I do not think the Government can sit back any longer and not take action.
Problems also surround the fact that sugary drinks are now heavily marketed at children and so readily available. How has it reached the point where a bottle of water in many shops is more expensive than a sugary drink?
Clearly, parents have ultimate responsibility for what they allow their children to eat and drink, especially when they are younger, so we need to help them and educate society as a whole about the serious dangers to our health of continuing to consume, and allowing children to continue to consume, sugary drinks at the current level.
We need to enable, educate and help parents more. Some suggestions have been made about labelling, which I believe has an important part to play. People should be able to make an educated decision about what they allow their children to have, rather than having to deal with the current situation, where labelling is incredibly vague and confusing.
The current obesogenic environment presents a massive challenge to parents on a daily basis. Consider the number of advertisements for junk food that children are exposed to during early evening shows such as X-Factor, Coronation Street, The Simpsons and Hollyoaks, which escape current broadcasting regulations as they are classed as family programming.
In addition to too much sugar and saturated fat, many of our children are also consuming too much salt, setting up a dietary pattern which can increase the risk of coronary heart disease later in life. We should be looking at ways to encourage manufacturers to reformulate food products so they don’t contain so many unhealthy ingredients.
We also need more clear guidelines on what constitutes a normal sized portion of food, which currently varies greatly between products and producers.
All of this considered, I believe we have reached a point where the Government does indeed have a role to play. They need to send the clear message that the current state of play is not acceptable or right, take some leadership and demonstrate that this issue must be addressed.
Of course, we have to work with producers and retailers. Perhaps the industry does want to resist the imposition of a sugar sweetened beverages tax. My view is simple: if it steps up to the plate and starts to take action now, perhaps we will not need to introduce a tax, but in the absence of that—it does not seem to be forthcoming at the moment—the Government should seriously consider taking action and introducing one.
I now look to all MPs who support the idea of a sugar sweetened beverage tax to work together and form a compelling case to the Government that action needs to be taken.