Sunday, 6 September 2015

* Sugar tax is a sweet idea with hardly any practical impact

Janet Street-Porter

 Jamie Oliver is an excellent crusader, a man who never lets practicality or fine detail get in the way of a passionate argument. He’s 100 per cent right: the amount of sugar we eat is way out of control and damaging our health. But is a tax the best way to curb our addiction?

In his latest television campaign, Jamie’s Sugar Rush, Oliver showed some shocking images – small children having their rotten teeth removed, a mum bottle-feeding her baby Coca-Cola, an obese 13-year-old schoolgirl with type 2 diabetes faced with testing her blood sugar levels every few hours.

Then Jamie undermined his own argument by filming at a primary school where the kids had all learnt to cook and grow their own food; not a fatty in sight. Those youngsters were eating healthily as a result of education, without the imposition of a tax on sugary drinks.

Jamie’s goal – to get the Government to impose a tax of 20 per cent on fizzy drinks – is widely supported by health professionals. He wants the money raised from the levy (estimated at £1bn a year, which sounds optimistic to me) to go directly to schools to fund lessons about cooking and nutrition.

The food industry did not emerge from this programme particularly well. One spokesperson, when confronted with the facts about the damage sugar is doing to the nation’s health, grudgingly admitted, “They’re the experts so we have to listen to them,” and trotted out the old chestnut about consumer choice being the best way forward.

The Government’s health advisers would like us to cut our sugar consumption from about 40 teaspoons a day to fewer than seven – which will require a massive lifestyle change. Sugar consumption has already started to decline slightly as the public switches to healthier alternatives by choice, but, as Oliver showed, sugar is added to everything from bread to stir-fry sauces. It’s a hidden killer, present in almost everything we eat.

However, increased taxes on smoking and drinking do nothing to alter consumption. Fewer people smoke now because it’s seen as naff. Young people drink less alcohol for the same reason. Changing our attitude to fizzy drinks will require the same shift in perception. We need some clever thinking about sugar, not a single tax.

Removing fast-food outlets and drink vending machines from hospitals and schools is a start. Banning the licensing of fast-food outlets within a mile of schools is another. Refusing to accept sponsorship from fizzy drink companies for sporting events is another still – how can we be serious about the nation’s health when Coke sponsored the Olympics?

I have never drunk Coca-Cola or eaten a Big Mac – my body is a temple and I don’t want to pollute it. Sadly, carrying a can of watery sugar has been cleverly marketed as part of everyday life, something as natural and normal as drinking water from the tap. It’s that perception we need to attack. The act of drinking sugar should be seen as something disgusting and damaging.

A tax is not a bad idea, but it’s not the solution to a problem which requires a more creative approach. We watch The Great British Bake Off in our millions. What’s that about, if not the communal worship of sugar?

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