The Irn Bru Chancellor's sugar levy is a small step in the right direction

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 20 March 2016 in Editor's note

There is no single silver bullet to reducing our obesity problem but that shouldn’t be an excuse for doing nothing

Politically, the sugar tax worked for George Osborne. It was a masterful diversionary tactic that deflected attention from a dismal budget that said more about him than it did about the economy.

A budget that snatched from the disabled and gave to the rich. And it was sugar that provided the sweetener that hit the headlines.

But regardless of his motives, in the end he was right.

A budget that “put the next generation first” by putting a sugar levy on fizzy drinks does, regardless of the Chancellor’s underlying motives, recognise the critical nature of this country’s obesity problem. And that is a good thing.


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The increasing girth of our citizens is an issue that we have skirted around for too long and anyone that argues against the fact is walking around with their eyes closed. We are a nation of fatties.

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a dinner for politicians and representatives of the food and drinks industries, along with health experts, supermarkets and consumers, and while Chatham House rules unfortunately prevent me from full disclosure, the overwhelming conclusion from that full and frank exchange of views was that while there is an industry and a political will to address the desperate issue of obesity, there is also an impotence for fear of targeting the poor and of hitting profits.

Wake up and smell the unsweetened coffee. This Irn-Bru Chancellor may have had an alternative motive but he has surprisingly, and in the face of intense lobbying, pulled the sugar tax out his little red box, and he has done us all a favour.

The obesity problem facing our country isn’t just a health issue, it is an economic one and we simply cannot afford to ignore it.

In Scotland, levels of obesity were recorded as the second worst in OECD countries in Europe in 2010, and evidence gathered by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition reveals it has only got worse.

On current trends, it is projected 40 per cent of Scots will be obese by 2030, with a knock-on effect of an increase in several serious diseases including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and other health-related problems. There are babies being born – too large and too early - with serious health problems simply because their mothers are too fat.

And while all the evidence would suggest that obesity is clearly yet another damning manifestation of inequality, that should be a reason for targeting it, not ignoring it. Hopefully, former Labour health minister Dr John Reid’s argument against a smoking ban - because it would remove one of the few pleasures that the poor could enjoy - has long been relegated to the public policy dustbin. And anyway, this is now about balancing one inequality against another; economic and health.

But back to my dinner, where great ideas flew around the table: from banning kids leaving school at lunchtime to compulsory sport, to reducing portions in restaurants to cutting down on sugar in ready-meals to taking a responsible approach to multiple in-store promotions on our supermarket shelves. There was no shortage of ideas because we know where the problems come from.

But when it came down to asking the politicians what we should do practically, they started talking about not targeting poor people, about the obstacles of changing behaviour and even about the genetic changes in the physiology of the poor that meant they craved fatty foods. A gargantuan problem and a paucity of solutions.

There is no single silver bullet to reducing our obesity problem but that shouldn’t be an excuse for doing nothing.

A ban on smoking in public places and the case for minimum unit pricing on alcohol show that the Scottish Parliament is not afraid to be radical over public health issues. And tackling obesity is one that should be above party politics. The Scottish Government might have appeared unconvinced on a sugar tax but it’s taken a Tory Chancellor to move things along.

We are about to go into an election campaign and the one thing all parties and polls appear to agree on is that the SNP will form the next government and that Nicola Sturgeon will be Scotland’s First Minister.

However, anything short of an increased majority in a parliament not designed for it by a party not even considered for it, will be seen as a weakening of the SNP’s hold.

So it should have been no surprise that the only way Sturgeon could distance herself from the appalling GERS figures, released days before her party conference and weeks before an election to be fought on her party’s record in government, was to resort to the same diversionary tactics as Osborne and pull something out of the hat - in her case, independence.

Those in the hall heard her say ‘a second referendum’ but their howls of approval muffled what came out of her mouth, which was more vague. She will launch an ‘initiative’ this summer to help build the arguments for independence. I would hazard a guess that not even she knows quite what that initiative means yet.

Sturgeon does not want a second referendum on the coattails of a possible Brexit vote. She knows the arguments and Scotland isn’t yet ready for that.

So on the back of the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, published last week, which found public trust in the Scottish Government at an all-time high, Sturgeon should perhaps reflect on her extraordinary mandate and the fact that as she tries to rebuild the case for independence she should also be brave enough to build a nation fit for the future and not one waddling towards it.

In the words of Spider-Man, ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’.

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