Sugar tax needed in war on childhood obesity, says World Health Organisation

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has joined those calling for a “sugar tax” on soft drinks in a major report on childhood obesity.

The move will undoubtedly increase pressure on the government as it prepares to issue its own strategy for tackling obesity in the UK.

The plan has been in the pipeline for some time – it was originally going to be published last autumn. But even at this late stage there is still fierce debate within Whitehall about what should be in it.

Health experts have been campaigning hard for a sugar tax to be introduced – and even the government advisory body Public Health England has put a case for it.

But for much of the time since the election, ministers have been resistant.

Now WHO has joined in the debate. Calling for a sugar tax, WHO’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity said: “Overall, the rationale for taxation measures to influence purchasing behaviours is strong and supported by the available evidence.

“The commission believes there is sufficient rationale to warrant the introduction of an effective tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. It is well established that the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with an increased risk of obesity.”

However, the boss of Unilever, one of the world’s biggest food manufacturers, disagrees.

He has warned that a sugar tax will not solve Britain’s obesity crisis and said it is “too simple” as a proposal.

Paul Polman said there was little evidence that introducing a levy on food and drink with a high sugar content would help tackle obesity.

Unilever makes some of Britain’s most popular snacks, including Magnum, Ben & Jerry’s, and Cornetto ice-creams.

Its chief executive said a sugar tax was not the “holy grail” and insisted that the countries that have introduced it, such as Mexico, are not seeing obvious benefits.

The call for the tax comes as a study found that exposure to advertising for junk foods and chocolate increases food intake in children – but not in adults.

The research by the University of Liverpool reviewed 22 separate studies that had examined the impact of food advertising exposure on food consumption.

Dr Emma Boyland, from the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health & Society, said: “Through our analysis of these published studies I have shown that food advertising doesn’t just affect brand preference – it drives consumption.

“Given that almost all children in Westernised societies are exposed to large amounts of unhealthy food advertising on a daily basis this is a real concern.”