Anti-sugar fanatics are watching how many biscuits you buy

Today is the start of Sugar Awareness Week. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s because it has just been invented by those fun-loving people at Action on Sugar (née Action on Salt). Today also sees Jamie Oliver’s delusions of grandeur reach new heights as he releases his ‘crisis strategy’ for obesity. Not coincidentally, there will also be the release of an anti-sugar film from one of the government’s many taxpayer-funded pressure groups, Give Up Loving Pop (GULP — geddit?), and there is the launch of yet another pressure group, the Obesity Stakeholder Group, to agitate for the usual round of bans and taxes.

It is, then, a busy day for the nanny state industry, so much so that one might almost suspect a degree of collusion. This is what happens when the ‘public health’ lobby goes from flying a kite to scenting blood. But these activities are merely the hors d’oeuvres for the big events in the House of Commons: a debate on Jamie Oliver’s sugar tax petition and the release of the findings from the health select committee on childhood obesity.

The health committee report is the big news, with the BBC reporting that a tax on sugary drinks has been ‘backed by MPs’. And so it has — by seven MPs to be precise. Two Conservative committee members, Andrea Jenkyns and Andrew Percy, have dissented, with the latter calling it ‘patronising nonsense’.

If introduced, a 20 per cent tax on soft drinks will redistribute the best part of a billion pounds from disproportionately poor consumers to middle-class bureaucrats. For those who have fallen for the bluster about sugar being the new tobacco, it is an obvious place to start, but no amount of sophistry can disguise the fact that it would be a patently regressive stealth tax. The report acknowledges concerns about disproportionately affecting low-income families but brushes them aside, saying: ‘We do not believe this needs to be the case because zero-sugar alternatives are available which would be unaffected.’ This would only be true if poor people stopped drinking sugary drinks, but that is not what happens when soft drink taxes are introduced. Sales dip little, if at all. Most people simply pay up.

Even in Mexico, which is the closest thing the anti-sugar brigade have to a success story, sales of sugary drinks are said to have declined by a mere six per cent and, as in every other country that has tried to tax itself slim, there has been no measurable effect on obesity. The committee’s report doesn’t mention this, nor does it mention Denmark’s fat tax which was such a failure the government not only repealed it but also abolished its tax on soft drinks and abandoned its plans for a sugar tax.

Among other omissions, the report also fails to mention the awkward fact that the rise in obesity seen in Britain between 1970 and 2000 coincided with sugar consumption declining by more than a fifth. Such facts should be the bedrock of any serious discussion of obesity, but — to be blunt — Wollaston’s hearings were not a serious discussion. I say this as somebody who gave evidence at them. Sitting alongside a spokesman from the food industry and a spokesman from the retail industry, it was clear that I was part of a token trio of opposition to excessive regulation. The other 12 witnesses were very much on the other side of the argument, which is to say that they were on Wollaston’s side. They included two leading lights from Action on Sugar, two people from the meddling quango Public Health England, an academic who helped Jamie Oliver make his ridiculous anti-sugar documentary, a Coke-obsessed campaigner from the Children’s Food Fund who has been helping Jamie Oliver with his new crusade, and Mr Oliver himself. Unsurprisingly, all 12 of them are keen supporters of taxing sugar.

Although the sugar tax has been getting most of the headlines today, it is only one indecent proposal among many. If implemented in full, the committee’s recommendations would represent by far the most draconian state interference perpetrated in the name of combating obesity anywhere in the world. The committee wants to reduce sugar consumption by 50 per cent, such an impractical target as to almost be deranged. Even the folk at Public Health England acknowledge that ‘no assessment has been made of the feasibility’ of reaching it. To put it in context, per capita sugar consumption is down significantly from its 1970s peak. If it were to fall by a further 50 per cent, Britons would be eating barely half as much as we did during the Second World War when sugar was tightly rationed.

Clearly, it would take an extraordinarily overbearing state to move consumption anywhere close to this target. Today’s report gives the clearest indication yet of what such a state might look like. The committee wants to dictate how much sugar can be used, where it can be sold and how much it can be sold for. It wants an ‘outright ban’ on confectionery and other disfavoured food products being displayed at the end of supermarket aisles and check-outs. It wants non-food shops, such as WH Smith, to stop offering confectionery at the till. It wants commercials for bacon, cheese and butter to be confined to late-night television. It wants the government to regulate the size of food portions in shops and restaurants. In short, it wants the world on a stick.

As if a sugary drinks tax wasn’t a big enough kick in the teeth for consumers, the committee also wants to put an end to discounting, price promotions and buy one, get one free (BOGOF) offers. In a weird, pearl-clutching digression about biscuits, the report imagines a scenario in which ‘a shopper might normally buy one pack of biscuits a week. When confronted with a “buy 2 for £2” deal they buy two packs instead of one (double their normal quantity). While this extra pack of biscuits might be expected to last two weeks (if still consuming one pack per week), the shopper actually buys a third packet of biscuits during the second week.’ The horror! The horror!

It is a sad day for House of Commons stationery when this kind of nonsense is printed on it. As the Middle East descends into chaos and the national debt continues to spiral, there are elected politicians fretting about people eating biscuits. Not just fretting, but demanding action. Admittedly, some of the demands are cloaked in rhetoric about ‘voluntary’ agreements with industry, but never has the word ‘voluntary’ been more deserving of ironic speech marks. As the committee explicitly says, such agreements will come with the ‘clear proviso that if the industry does not respond comprehensively and swiftly then regulatory action will quickly follow’.

They not only want manufacturers to halve the amount of sugar in their products, but also demand — almost as an aside — that ‘the Government should also introduce a parallel programme of reformulation to reduce the overall calorie content of food, including the levels of fats’. If only it was that simple. Why do they think food companies and chefs put salt, fat and sugar in their meals in the first place? For a laugh? To get rid of surplus stock? To annoy Sarah Wollaston? In essence, the committee wants the government to put a gun to the head of food companies to force them to produce products that have no appeal to consumers.

It won’t happen — not for a while, anyway. The government, like the Labour party, has never supported sin taxes on food and soft drinks. It will almost certainly thank the committee for its input and duly file the report in the waste paper basket. In response, Wollaston will do what she always does when ministers refuse to be bullied by the ‘public health’ lobby and accuse the government of bowing to industry. Nevertheless the report will be cited for years to come as an ‘official’ and ‘expert’ endorsement of Action on Sugar’s outlandish demands. Today’s carefully planned avalanche of agitation will not be for nothing.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    “Sugar Awareness Week….Action on Sugar..”
    Christ on a bike. What next: Action on vol-au-vents? Stop giving publicity to cranks and health fascists, those dreary misanthropic toerags who should have been strangled at birth. And I really, really wish people would stop voting for the kind of politicians who take this sort of garbage seriously.

    • RobertRetyred

      You will have to make do with Christ on a donkey.
      Will we need to eat sugar free fruit? Sweet potatoes will be out.

  • ‘bacon, cheese and butter’

    This is serious business: those are excellent foods, especially the cheese and butter, which up-to-date science never mind common sense and experience is teaching us to respect more than ever.

    I don’t believe them, also, when they claim that only SUGARED pop would be taxed. ‘Diet’ drinks with non-sugar sweeteners are likely to be treated by these anti-food, anti-choice fanatics as a ‘gateway’ drug. Can’t have people enjoying themselves even without sugar, can we?

    Jamie Oliver needs to get a hobby.

    The government should stop wasting taxpayers’ money on spurious, freedom-hating, anti-market projects such as this. It needs to pay attention, as this article suggests, to the real problems confronting the country.

    • Malcolm Stevas

      Jamie Oliver’s hobbies seem to be making money (commendable) and polishing his ego.

      • Giggle. You’re in wicked form today, Malcolm!

        • Malcolm Stevas

          Gosh, I hope you’re a sultry brunette with a figure to make a bishop smash a stained glass window…

          • <— I'm glad you like the outfit. It pinches in places but now and then I like to get out of Marks & Spencer : )

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Ooooohhh… Come up and see me some time.

          • Sigh. Married.

          • things used to be better

            He is!!!

    • lolexplosm

      Action on Sugar has stated that they would want the sugar tax to be on all sweetened drinks which of course includes sugar- and calorie-free drinks.

      Fanatics is being polite.

      • Ah right. So they’re not really against sugar, then. They’re against sweetness.

        • lolexplosm

          Action on Sugar was formed by the chairman of an anti-salt group. Coupled with his recent suggestions to further reduce salt and fat in foods and I would say they’re against taste entirely.

          • I would agree. There are always anti-sensualists, as well as those that don’t care for music and don’t respond to beauty. It’s weird and — for them, surely — deeply unfortunate. But I don’t see why their dismal incapacities should blight the pleasures of everyone else. In fact, I think they should be resisted vigorously.

          • things used to be better

            Not quite, his previous group was called ‘pepper’ and had been campaigning for years at the unfair priority given to salt by society in that its always mentioned first. He was always in favour of the taste of pepper but when the anti-salt campaign failed it left a bitter taste and so he moved onto the sugar project.

  • Maddogpom

    Just have us all penned in a feed lot, like the sheep.

  • douglas redmayne

    The main problem with sifar is the excessive quantities added to food by manufacturers. This is something that should definitely be regulated ad it’s not in the public interest.

    • No it shouldn’t. What’s in the public interest is not having every aspect of our lives micromanaged by power-hungry bureaucrats. There is nothing wrong, for instance, with Christmas cake or jam. To ban cake and jam just because some people have it too often is to kneecap all the others, like me, that eat such foods as special treats and in moderation. That is a purely private concern –and I’d rather that I have the freedom to govern myself well, even if it means that others also have the freedom to govern themselves badly.

      • douglas redmayne

        Food companies lie all the time and need to be regulated in the public interest. You clearly believe their propaganda and it’s cretins like you who hold things back.

        • Of course they don’t ‘lie all the time’! That’s just a wild claim. They are ALREADY regulated — who do you think puts the nutrition labels on everything? Do you think the agency involved just GUESSED? What do you think food safety controls exist for? And you call ME the cretin!

    • lolexplosm

      You don’t have to eat their food, there are so many alternatives.

  • colchar

    Hopefully we can get rid of the ridiculous reliance on the BMI, which is deeply flawed. According to it, Usain Bolt is overweight.

  • marcos_marcotron

    I think sugar is pretty bad long term, and I think it’s fair enough to keep going on about how bad it is, and encourage us to not be eating so much, but if it ends up being taxed higher, then who knows where it could end…we could end up being taxed if we don’t prove we’re doing enough exercise each day.

    Or it could be worse – if recent studies are true, that too much exercise can result in an earlier death, along with too little exercise, compared with daily ‘walking’ which allegedly extends one’s life, we could be taxed for doing too little or too much exercise.

    • Gilbert White

      In a rain forest, after water all life craves sugar and salt to obsession.

  • Neil Robinson

    I would suggest to Wollaston that an excellent additional measure would be a 50% tax rate on the sale of cookery books and DVDs which use sugar as an ingredient. I’m sure Jamie Oliver would be right on board with that, wouldnt he?

  • Gilbert White

    Sugar, honey honey, you have got me wanting you!

    • Callipygian

      Oh please don’t! My hubby likes to drive me round the twist by insisting that that is a great song. And this is a guy that knows all the concerts from the 60s forwards of the Grateful Dead!

  • Martin351

    The reason a sugar tax would help is because all those people who are burdening our medical system with obesity, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, can now start paying for it themselves.

    I’ve often wondered, why are people like me having to foot the bill for those who can’t take care of their own health by eating properly?

    The cost to our medical system by people’s own erroneous diets is in the hundreds of billions. Time for them to pay for it and not anybody else.

    • SeppoLa

      I think what some people fail to realize is sugar’s negative effects can be cascaded down to your offspring, much like how drinking or smoking while your pregnant can produce negative effects on your child.

      Sugar (and white flour products because we need to add those in there too), over time create cell damage to the point it creates a genetic mutation so to speak within your cells. You then in turn pass these down to your children making them even more prone than you were to disease. Then if your child continues the same eating with lack of care for their health, in turn makes the genetic mutation even worse passing it down to their children.

      This is why at minimum sugar needs to be taxed because as you say Martin, these people need to be footing their own bill when it comes to healthcare.

      • lolexplosm

        *Citations needed*

        Your brain cells run on glucose, I find it highly unlikely that glucose causes genetic mutations.

        • Mary Ann

          Especially as fruit contains loads of sugars.

      • MC73

        Utter rubbish. A load of tinfoil hat pseudo-science.

    • lolexplosm

      “hundreds of billions”?! – The NHS would have collapsed long ago if that were true.

      “Burdening our medical system with….cancer”?! – I find that an odd attitude. Cancer is a complicated disease that is caused by a wide variety of factors. There is probably no real way to determine what the original cause was and if it was the fault of the individual. What do you think our medical system should actually be used for?

      You have to be careful with that line of thought too, assuming you lead a life with perfect lifestyle choices and a flawless diet and exercise regime.

      “My chest hurts, can I see my GP?”

      “It says here you’ve missed your 30 minute daily excercise sessions and only ate 3 of your 5 a day last weekend. You also had 3 pints at your mate’s 30th birthday party last month which is well over the daily recommended intake. It seems you work in the city and own a car which you use to commute to work 5 days a week. It says here you tried a cigarette when you were at college too. Sorry but other people don’t want to pay for your mistakes, you’ll have to ignore the taxes you have already paid and go private.”

      Whilst I appreciate your point, most of the “bad stuff” is already taxed and it has been suggested that alcohol duty raises far more for the government than it costs in terms of health. We supposedly live in a free society with “universal” health care. The alternative is an insurance based scheme and we only have to look at the USA to see how well that can work out. Another tax isn’t necessary, there is no reason to believe it would have the proposed effects and it wouldn’t stop the rich making poor lifestyle choices.

      Why would people like me and the majority of the public have to foot the bill to eat anything with sugar in? Remember, it’s proposed the money raised is used to fund “charities” and education, it is not going to offset any current costs to the NHS which appears to be your main concern.

      Why not increase taxes on alcohol or just ban that too? What about a fat tax? As fat is more calorie dense than sugar, it has to be a major contributer to obesity too. Why not ban meat and coffee as they are carcinogenic? Why not ban anything that is deemed “unhealthy” by tax payer funded public health groups and the state?

      We cannot demonise one ingredient as the cause of and solution to every problem.

      • With respect, I live in the USA and the insurance scheme here is fully adequate except for three things: 1) it’s mainly employer-dependent, unless you are too poor (in which case you have taxpayer-funded Medicaid) or old (in which case you have taxpayer-funded Medicare). 2) Just because you have insurance does not mean your expenses are covered: they can be rejected. 3) A healthy person overpays: I believe in catastrophic insurance with a high deductible for extremely healthy non-users like me, but that’s not the system we have — and Obama (naturally) is only making that situation worse.

        • Mary Ann

          But you have an extremely expensive health system which costs more than twice the percentage of GDP that the NHS costs, and it doesn’t serve everybody, if your system is so good why is the death rate per 1000 from Mexican flu so much higher in the US than it was in Britain.

          • things used to be better

            …… is it because no one cares about Mexicans?

      • things used to be better

        Give him a break it was a typo. He obviously meant ‘hundreds of pounds’, and that’s the total for all of the last 20 years.

    • MC73

      “The cost to our medical system by people’s own erroneous diets is in the hundreds of billions.”

      No it isn’t. The ‘cost’ of obesity, like the cost of smoking, is not borne by the health service but by the fatties and the smokers. They save the health service money by dying early.

      “Cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease” are on the increase simply because people are living longer. If saving money is the aim, we should be giving them donuts laced with cocaine.

      Incidentally, what exactly is an ‘erroneous’ diet? Whose advice are you taking on the ‘correct’ diet? The medical profession’s record on this is not good, note its confusion about fat for the past half-century.

      • things used to be better

        Exactly, in fact its a fantastic example of altruism the like of which isn’t frequently seen these days.
        I say we applaud the effort Fatties are making to sacrifice themselves so the rest of us can benefit. Dont forget global warming either, you never hear of a huge lifeless corpse driving a gaz guzzling car on a journey they could easily do in a bus in 4 hours do you?

    • Texas Sunday Morning

      If these people are as unhealthy as you say they will die relatively early and whatever costs have been incurred in medical bills will be outweighed by savings in social securitt. You on the other hand will doubtless keep living until 90-odd drawing your pension and requiring a flock of nursing home staff as you descend into senility.

    • UnionJihack

      What foodnazis need to do is herd together all fat folk and forcefully reeductate them with respect to how to live their lives like proper human beings. There is no other way I am afraid. Look at the havoc the free for all of bad choices coupled with addictive stupidity has created.

      • badu

        When you’re approach has to enter a Maoist re-eduction phase, it’s time for a rethink. Human body weight is down to mechanics not psychology, you dimwit.

        • UnionJihack

          Oh yes? Says who?

          • badu

            I do.

    • Mary Ann

      But at least most of them won’t be collecting their pensions for thirty or forty years. Swings and roundabouts.

    • things used to be better

      Yes exactly, look how the massive duty on alcohol stopped all the excess drinking decades ago. You don’t see anyone admitted to Hospital for drinking related health issues now do you! Oh no, there is no problem on earth which a tax rise will not cure.

    • Steve

      I look forward to getting to turn you away from a hospital on the basis “you brought it upon yourself”.

      The money raised wont go to the NHS, and it won’t decrease obesity, which is caused by factors more complex than “sugar bad”.

      Plus I really don;t feel like having to pay more for simple food of all things, because some muppets have decreed it is as bad as smoking, and other people can’t help making themselves fat.

  • Ed  

    Sorry to disappoint all the finger-waggers, but I’m on the Churchill diet – eat like a king, smoke like a chimney, drink like a fish, and live to 90.

    • Texas Sunday Morning

      Only really works with high status, e.g. being born a Duke’s grandson and becoming PM.

      • Ed  

        Are the genetics really that different? Are you a racist?

        • Texas Sunday Morning

          You appear to have a problem with basic reading comprehension. BBC Bitesize is quite good if you’re looking to improve.

          • Ed  

            Nerve touched, I see. Enough said.

        • Mary Ann

          Not racist, classist.

          • Ed  

            He was talking about physical, genetic differences.

    • things used to be better

      Hear hear, hope you frequently break into a slow and deep serious speech appropriate to the situation. For example I use ‘We will fight them on the beaches…’ when confronted with road rage.

      • Ed  

        Oh no, just because I eat like him doesn’t mean I have his language skills, intellect or poise. Now that you mention it, I can’t think of anyone who does.

  • RobertRetyred

    Does this committee have break for tea and biscuits?

  • rbw152

    I just wish the state would get out of my face.

    The problem is, if we allow them to dictate our diets, it will be a travel choices next, then what we use to heat and cook with, then what type of vehicles we use, then how much exercise we do, then where we get our food from, then where we go on holiday, then how much alcohol we drink, then what substances we use et bloody cetera.

    All of the above have been nominated for state interference at some time or another and still are by certain groups of meddlers.

    For those who basically don’t trust ‘other people’ that may be fine. Or for those who don’t think the rest of us can think as wisely as them that’s all good. But for those of us who don’t believe we were born to do what the state tells us to do all the time it’s a relentless march to a sinister nanny state that we shall live to regret as we look back at all the freedoms we lost on the way.

    It’s no coincidence at all that people who advocate the state as being the answer to every human foible and fault are on the left politically. It’s what they do.

    • Callipygian

      And anyway, the ‘state’ is just other adults who are full of themselves. I don’t let other adults dictate to me.

  • Sean L

    Punitive taxation on sugared water is an excellent idea, regardless of the motives or political inclinations of its advocates. But only if balanced by commensurate tax reductions elsewhere. On income tax, for instance. Fat chance!

  • RobWatkin

    Reminded me that I haven’t had a piece of cake for months. Think I am going to have to nip down to the shops!

  • GTL544

    I know this thread is old, but…….
    I sell biscuits for a living (sweet, savoury & organic varieties). In the last month or so, having ‘launched’ a range into the UK from a high quality continental bakery, and having been in the road at consumer sampling events (and therefore armed with as much collateral as possible), I am starting to hear from consumers some things which I had never heard during a previous venture (‘healthier snacks’) which I sold last year.
    This is that some parents are aware that many of the so called healthy snacks for kids are scandalously high in natural sugars; dried fruit type snacks being the culprit. A parent today told me about a friend, who until recently only gave her daughter fruit snacks (dried and fresh) but now, aged 6, her daughter is banned from them because ‘her teeth are rotting’.
    Many of these healthy snacks contain over 50% sugar (raisins are worst at over 80%!) Yet the marketeers are saying’ no added sugar’ or ‘naturally occurring sugars’. As if to suggest natural sugars are good. Yet the rise in sales of healthy style snacks of this sort has coincided with a rise in child tooth decay.
    The biscuits I import and was sampling today contain 21.5% sugar. Plus (‘grass fed’) butter, nuts and wheat. Some parents bought them because they reckoned they would be healthier/better than dried fruit snacks. Which I think they are. I was pleased and astonished that for the first time in my 10 year career in the industry, parents were looking beyond the top line marketing spin, and thinking about a more wholesome, balanced diet for their children, not the nonsense about high sugar snacks being healthy.
    I appreciate that 21.5% is still pretty high for sugar. But a darn sight lower than many faux healthy snacks in the market and we are honest about our ingredients. I wonder whether balance & moderation will start becoming a more mainstream theme again, in people’s food choices.
    I am not sure tax is the answer. It seems to me more about education, because the choice then comes from within the consumer, if you see what I mean.