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Just the beginning

Sugar tax is just the start of intervention unless industry acts swiftly, collaborates and does a better job of fighting its corner, says Jennifer Powers.

The sugar tax was the budget announcement no one saw coming. The first inkling that something was afoot was a provocative tweet from broadcaster Robert Peston as the chancellor rose to his feet, suggesting the budget contained a big surprise. Jubilation followed from Jamie Oliver and fellow campaigners, the industry reacted with indignation
and the announcement dominated newspaper front pages.

Cynical minds may speculate that the announcement was a clever diversion from the disappointing growth forecasts contained in the budget, but more interesting is why the government felt able to announce a controversial and hurriedly pulled together policy which cuts against the grain of mainstream Conservative thinking.

What to do about obesity has always presented the government with a dilemma. The libertarian wing of the Conservative Party is suspicious of “nanny state” paternalist measures and is inherently sceptical of compulsory regulations and new taxes – and few politicians would want to introduce measures that threaten jobs and livelihoods.

However, a small but influential number of Conservative ministers, advisers and centre-right media commentators felt that the light-touch approach previously taken on obesity has failed – and they seized their opportunity to intervene.

Medical NGOs and celebrities ran a very successful campaign. But it was the lack of a counter-argument that gave campaigners a clear run and the government the space to act.

There will now be a consultation and the opportunity for industry to avoid the tax through reformulation, but as with all new taxes a Rubicon has been crossed. Industry needs to fully engage with the consultation process and become more involved in the public policy debate about the most effective ways to tackle obesity.

There are three ways it can make a start. First, it must push back consistently and continuously against the demonisation of specific nutrients and food groups. Second, it must raise awareness about the adverse effects of interventionist policies – particularly on hard-pressed consumers. The sugar tax will undoubtedly push up the shopping bills of some low and middle- income earners – a fact that has been largely missing from this debate.

Third, in an industry with little tradition of collaboration, individual companies must recognise the importance of working together over the long term to promote the importance of a well-rounded diet. Companies should raise concerns about proposals that will end up stifling competition or raising prices.

In this Year of Great British Food, and with the Childhood Obesity Strategy still to come, both the government and industry face profound choices about the relationship between food and public health, not least: How much to intervene? And how much can and should the industry offer voluntarily?

The only thing not in doubt is the certainty and determination of the public health campaigners for change. Tackling obesity will be a story that runs throughout this parliament and far beyond. If the food industry continues with its current approach then the sugar tax will only be the beginning of interventions that affect the bottom line.

Jennifer Powers is head of advocacy at Westbourne Communications.