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Public health leaders slam Boris Johnson over “sin tax” review plan

BMJ 2019; 366 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l4557 (Published 04 July 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;366:l4557
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

Experts in public health have condemned comments by the Tory leadership candidate Boris Johnson that he may halt the government’s sugar levy if he becomes the next prime minister.

The comments were made at a leadership campaign event where Johnson pledged to review taxes on sugar, salt, and fat that he argued unfairly punished poor people.

Johnson said, “The recent proposal for a tax on milkshakes seems to me to clobber those who can least afford it. If we want people to lose weight and live healthier lifestyles, we should encourage people to walk, cycle, and generally do more exercise. Rather than just taxing people more, we should look at how effective the so called sin taxes really are and if they actually change behaviour.”

The comments came as Cancer Research UK released figures showing that people who were obese outnumbered smokers two to one in the UK and that excess weight caused more cases of certain cancers than smoking.1

Johnson’s stance puts him at odds with the health and social care secretary for England, Matt Hancock, who unexpectedly backed Johnson to become Tory leader after dropping out of the leadership race himself last month. Hancock supports the sugar tax, which came into force in April 2018, and he has been widely expected to extend the tax to sugary milk drinks in an upcoming green paper on prevention.

Public health experts condemned Johnson’s “shortsighted” comments.

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said, “One of the successes of the last Conservative government was the introduction of the sugar levy for soft drinks. The evidence shows that the sugar levy has worked. Nearly half of the soft drinks market has reduced the sugar in their products to avoid charges.”

Cramer argued that Johnson’s stance of placing the onus on the individual was inadequate for tackling the childhood obesity epidemic that is affecting deprived and low income households the most.

She added, “We should be building on the success of the sugar levy, not turning back the clock on the progress that has been made so far. This is a shortsighted proposal—and we do hope that this decision hasn’t been influenced by sweet talking from the food industry. We would urge Boris Johnson to reconsider.”

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh said that any move to reverse the sugar tax would be a “disaster” for public health in the UK. And in a statement the Faculty of Public Health said, “The evidence is clear—the sugar tax benefits people’s health, particularly those on low incomes.”

Adam Briggs, a specialty registrar in public health who is based at the Health Foundation, wrote a detailed summary on Twitter of the evidence supporting a sugar tax. He concluded, “Obesity is a massively complex problem and no single solution is going to be enough to solve the current crisis—hence having a broad reaching obesity strategy. But, as single interventions go, sugary drink taxes are right up there.

“They are likely to ‘shift the curve’ [for ]the whole population to be more healthy. And unlike most interventions to increase exercise, they don’t require individual agency and are more likely to be both effective and equitable.”

In a statement the Department of Health and Social Care for England said that its sugar levy had led to half of all drinks in its scope being reformulated, the equivalent of removing 45 million kg of sugar every year. A spokeswoman added, “Our policies on obesity and public health have always been guided by evidence and will continue to be in the future.”

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