A row is brewing in the Department for Health after a junior minister yesterday said snack companies could be forced to pay a “sugar tax” if they continue to sell unhealthy foods.
The Telegraph reports that George Freeman, Life Sciences Minister, said he may support such a tax to pay for the cost of treating obesity, blaming sugary drinks and snacks for Britain’s expanding waistline.
He told the Hay Festival: “I don’t think heavy-handed legislation is the way to go.
“But I think that where there is a commercial product which confers costs on all of us as a society, as in sugar, and where we can clearly show that the use of that leads to huge pressures on social costs, then we could be looking at recouping some of that through taxation.
“Companies should know that if you insist on selling those products, we will tax them.”
However, his comments put him at odds with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has already ruled out such a move, saying that the government would look at alternative ways to get people to eat healthily.
Other figures in the Department for Health, however, have backed the tax, including chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies and Susan Jebb, chairman of the Food Responsibility Network.
The chairman of campaign group Action on Sugar, Graham MacGregor, backed Freeman’s comments, saying: “We are very much in favour of a sugar tax and we welcome Mr Freeman’s words.
“The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, can no longer ignore the fact that current nutrition policy whereby the food industry is allowed to police itself is, unsurprisingly, not working. We are delighted that Tesco has agreed that this is exactly the sort of action that we need and all other retailers must follow suit.”
Also speaking at the Hay Festival, Professor Tim Lang of City University London took an even more hard-line approach, saying that snack manufactures should be banned from calling their products “food”.
“They should not be allowed to call unhealthy food ‘food’,” he said. “It should only be allowed to be called ‘snacks’. They are basically just using a raw food ingredient to wrap sugar and flavourings around.
“We should have the health message that people should avoid any food that is advertised.”
Any move to introduce such a tax would likely be fiercely opposed by more libertarian Conservative backbenchers who are already smarting after the government pushed plain packaging for cigarettes through parliament before the election.
Although the Health Secretary opposes the move, Teesside University is compiling a review of the proposals for Public Health England.