MPs are backing a 20% levy on full-sugar soft drinks as part of a no-nonsense, multi-pronged approach to reducing the number of children who are overweight or obese in the UK.

The Health Select Committee is now demanding “bold and urgent action” from the Prime Minister David Cameron on childhood obesity, warning that if the government fails to act “the problem will become far worse”. 

The call comes as one fifth of children begin school overweight or obese, a figure that increases to one third by the time they leave primary education, increasing their risk of developing serious conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers in later life.

Also, the most deprived children are twice as likely to be obese both at Reception and at Year 6 than the least deprived and, according to Public Health England, the trend over the last eight years shows a widening of inequality in excess weight and obesity prevalence in both school years, reinforcing the need for policies that will have an impact right across society.

“This has serious consequences for both their current and future health and wellbeing and we cannot continue to fail these children,” said chair of the Health Committee, Sarah Wollaston MP. “There are many causes and no one single or simplistic approach will provide the answer. We therefore urge the Prime Minister to make a positive and lasting difference to children’s health and life chances through bold and wide ranging measures within his childhood obesity strategy”.

While increasing physical activity is “enormously beneficial” whatever a child’s weight, this alone will not tackle the rising toll of obesity, the Committee notes, and says the evidence is clear that “measures to reduce calorie intake must lie at the heart of a successful strategy”. 

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommends that sugar should account for a maximum of 5% of energy intake for adults and children, but current levels in children are still three times this amount. To help reduce consumption, MPs are backing a tax on high-sugar drinks to help change behaviour, but stress that all the proceeds should be used to target those children at greatest risk of obesity. 

Their report also calls for strong controls on price promotions of unhealthy food and drink, after hearing from Public Health England that their removal could cut sugar purchasing by 6%. In fact, PHE calculates that reducing the amount of sugar in key food groups by 50% could cut children’s consumption to around 11% of energy intake - which, it noted, is still more than twice the SACN guideline, highlighting the magnitude of the problem.

A package of measures is key

The Health Select Committee’s report is clear that a wide range of measures must be implemented together for a lasting effect, including tougher controls on marketing and advertising of unhealthy food and drink, universal school food standards, and early intervention to offer help to families of children affected by obesity. 

But commenting on the report, Ian Wright, director general of the UK’s Food and Drink Federation, said tackling obesity “would be best and most swiftly achieved not through additional government-imposed regulation but instead through an accountable industry partnership with Government that drives behaviour change, builds on the progress made on reformulating products and changing pack sizes and which goes further in preventing advertising for foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar being aimed at children”.

A tax on sugary drinks will be debated in the House of Commons later today (November 30) following a petition started on by Jamie Oliver and Sustain, which has been signed by more than 150,000 people.