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Food and drinks industry warned to cut sugar or face tax

The food and drinks industry is "on notice" that a sugar tax will be brought in unless it curbs the amount of sugar in people's diets, England's Chief Medical Officer has said.

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Dame Sally Davies said there was “no silver bullet” for tackling Britain’s obesity crisis, but reformulating products with less sugar as well as resizing foods would have an impact.

She told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “There is no silver bullet for obesity, this is complex.

“While a sugar tax is totemic, it’s not going to have the biggest impact.”

She said “reformulation, resizing, preventing promotions and preventing advertising” would be key.

A study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) earlier this week showed that a sugary drinks tax in Mexico has led to a 12% reduction in sales and a 4% increase in the purchase of untaxed drinks in the first year.

Cancer Research UK has also called for a tax on sugary drinks for the first time in a bid to curb rising rates of cancer caused by people being overweight.

Asked if she was in favour of a sugar tax, Dame Sally said: “I think the Mexican evidence where over the first year, 2014, we have a rise in the impact so they sold 12% less in the last month of their first year, suggests this (a sugar tax) will have an impact.

“I’ve already put industry on notice that if they don’t respond in the other ways, we’re going to have to have a sugar tax.”

David Cameron, who has previously been against a sugar tax, said on Thursday that it would not be ruled out but he was hoping to “avoid” it.

A new anti-obesity strategy is due to be published by the Government within weeks.

Asked if he was ready to reverse his previous opposition to the policy, the Prime Minister said: “Of course it would be far better if we could make progress on all these issues without having to resort to taxes. That would be my intention.

“But what matters is that we do make progress.

“We need to look at this in the same way in the past we have looked at the dangers of smoking to health and other health-related issues.

“So that is my commitment: we need a fully-worked up strategy, we shouldn’t be in the business of ruling things out but obviously putting extra taxes on things is not something I would aim to do, it is something I would rather avoid.”

He added: “I don’t really want to put new taxes on anything but we do have to recognise that we face potentially in Britain something of an obesity crisis when we look at the effect of obesity not just on diabetes but the effect on heart disease, potentially on cancer, when we look at the costs on the NHS, the life-shortening potential of these problems.

“We do need to have a fully-worked-up programme to deal with this problem and address these issues in Britain and we will be making announcements later in the year.”

Downing Street said the industry must do more to tackle the obesity crisis.

The Prime Minister’s official spokeswoman said: “As we have said before, more needs to be done to address this challenge and that’s not just for government to do.

“It does include the industry doing more to develop alternatives to products that are high in sugar.”

Photo from Peter Byrne / PA Wire