Ministers have shelved the publication of a report by their own health advisers on whether it is possible to tackle the obesity crisis through controversial moves such as taxing sugary drinks or banning two-for-one offers on sweet treats in supermarkets.
Public Health England was due on Friday to publish a detailed assessment of the likely success of a range of measures to curb the nation’s intake of sugar, which health experts say is too high.
But the agency’s year-long examination of the evidence for 23 different sugar reduction policies has been delayed, the Department of Health (DH) confirmed, prompting claims from the health lobby that minsters had taken a reckless and “disgraceful decision” that is an “appalling, retrograde step”.
Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, an alliance of health, education and children’s organisations, said: “The government’s scrapping of Public Health England’s recommendations on sugar reduction looks like deplorable complacency in the face of a health epidemic. We hope this will not turn out to be an anti-science government.”
A government spokesperson said tackling obesity was a subject of great concern, but indicated there was no timetable for publishing the PHE report: “We have asked for expert advice about the amount of sugar we should be eating, which will be published soon, and this will be taken into account as we continue to work on our childhood obesity strategy.”
PHE has also been examining the evidence for:
- .reducing portion sizes, such as “supersize” fizzy drinks sold in cinemas
- .introducing tighter controls on the advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar to children
- .banning the display of high-sugar products from near checkouts in supermarkets
- .improved labelling of foods to encourage healthier choices.
The DH said PHE’s findings would now be used to help draw up the government’s promised new childhood obesity strategy, due by the end of the year.
The DH has decided to produce a strategy to tackle soaring childhood obesity by the NHS England chief executive, Simon Stevens, who has called being extremely overweight “the new smoking” and criticised parents for letting their children eat junk food.
Of the many measures it was looking at, it is unclear which ones PHE planned to recommend. But the postponement spares the government the prospect of another clash with the medical and public health professions over its opposition to a tax on sugary drinks and reliance on voluntary deals with food firms to help curb obesity. It has already rejected the British Medical Association’s call this week for a 20% tax on sugary drinks to deter consumption.
Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, said: “I cannot believe that this PHE report on sugar has been scrapped. It’s extremely worrying. It shows that all the promises made during the election campaign to address childhood obesity are essentially being thrown on the scrapheap.”
Jane Landon, deputy director of the UK Health Forum, a charity which helped PHE draw up the document, said it was unhelpful and “made no sense” to publish PHE’s action plan separately from SACN’s own report.
Luciana Berger, the shadow public health minister, said: “If these reports are true, then there can be no justification for scrapping an independent review. If ministers fail to publish this evidence, people will conclude that the government is putting the interests of food and drink companies above the health of the nation.”
A PHE spokesperson said: “We are finalising our evidence package and will send it to the government shortly. We will publish it later in the summer.”
PHE’s document was due to be published on the same day as the scientific advisory committee on nutrition (SACN) issued a final report backing up its view, originally expressed last year, that everyone needed to reduce the amount of calories they obtained from sugar from 10% to 5%. It was expected to provide the detail on how that objective could be achieved.
You've hit the nail on the head Luciana "If ministers fail to publish this evidence, people will conclude that the government is putting the interests of food and drink companies above the health of the nation.” The public will not be fooled. I'm sure the lobbyists have been out in force.
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