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Sugar tax won't fix our obesity crisis, says Sunderland academic

Dr Paul Innerd, lecturer in Exercise Physiology at the University of Sunderland
Dr Paul Innerd, lecturer in Exercise Physiology at the University of Sunderland
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The sugar levy will not act as a quick fix in beating the UK’s bulging diet issues, a Sunderland academic has said.

From today, manufacturers of soft drinks face paying a levy on the high sugar drinks which they produce.

The levy is seen by some as a big step forward in dealing with the nation’s health problems, while others fear the impact will be minimal.

But Dr Paul Innerd, lecturer in Exercise Physiology at the University of Sunderland, believes hitting the consumer in the pocket may not be the solution, and that a much larger, longer-term strategy will be needed to slim down the obesity crisis.

“Where health is concerned I’m not a fan of the government using taxation to change the public’s behaviour," he said.

“There’s little evidence to show it works. For example, alcohol prices have sky rocketed, but we still see regular consumption across all socioeconomic groups.

“Nonetheless, restricting choice especially in young people does help. But it isn’t a stand-alone solution. Effective, long lasting behaviour change is a society-wide issue and needs a longer term plan.”

Some of the world’s most well known soft drink brands, including Fanta, Ribena and Irn Bru have already cut the amount of sugar in their products, meaning the £500million-plus the Treasury thought it might raise from the levy, is more likely to be around £250million.

Drinks with more than 8g of sugar per 100ml will now face a tax rate equivalent to 24p per litre, while pure fruit juices will be exempt as they do not have added sugar.

But Dr Innerd is sceptical that Government intervention can produce better health outcomes.

“The lifestyle decisions we make are largely driven by trends and fashions, not Government legislation," he said.

“For example, decades ago, smoking was seen as fashionable, whereas today, many view smoking as undesirable.

“A more recent example is sleep. Through the 90’s sleep was seen as something for the weak willed, something the winners don’t bother with.

"Whereas, now we have sleep trackers, apps and a changing attitude toward sleep as a healthy, positive behaviour.”

Public health leaders say all age groups are consuming too much sugar but teenagers are the worst offenders, getting a quarter of their sugar from soft drinks.

The levy is being applied to manufacturers and it will be up to them to decide if the extra cost is passed onto the consumer.

Dr Innerd believes early intervention could be a better solution.

He said: “Diet is notoriously difficult to change. So a long term approach is needed starting with initiatives for children in schools which make sugary pops unfashionable. Reinforce this message in teens and eventually a society emerges with healthier attitudes toward sugary drinks.

“So whilst lowering the content of sugar in soft drinks should show some effect in the short term. It needs to be part of a larger strategy for a healthier society.”

According to Public Health England, a typical energy drink contains 13 cubes of sugar, cola nine cubes, and a juice pouch five cubes.