Childhood obesity, the Sugar Tax & advertising to children – The Latest

United Kingdom

The government has now published its long-awaited Childhood Obesity report. The report itself was relatively short (a mere 8 pages of content excluding its introduction and the footnotes) and remains light on detail. However, it gives some insight into the new UK Government’s priorities regarding health and childhood obesity, including commitment to providing support to families, strategies for increasing activity, particularly for children, and greater use of technology to support health initiatives.

In the report the Government reiterates its commitment to the concept of introducing some form of sugar tax. Interestingly there is a slight shift in terminology from the original focus on a tax on drinks with added sugar announced by George Osborne in his March 2016 budget to making it clear that this is to be “a soft drinks industry levy across the UK”. However, no further detail has been provided as to how it is envisaged that this will introduced, save that the two-year implementation period identified by George Osborne to give companies opportunity to change their product mix, is to be maintained. George Osborne had proposed that the tax would be levied on the companies themselves, and provided detail that it was to be assessed on the volume of the sugar-sweetened drinks produced or imported, with two bands – one for total sugar content above 5 grams per 100 millilitres; and a second, higher band for the most sugary drinks with more than 8 grams per 100 millilitres. No such detail is referred to in this latest report. It simply states that consultation “on the technical detail” will take place “over the summer”, with legislation planned in next year’s Finance Bill. For more information about the Sugar Tax click here.

It seems clear, however, that reformulation is at the heart of the government’s new strategy and the overall strategy is not limited to soft drinks. The report says that there will be nine priority categories (breakfast cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, morning goods (e.g. pastries), puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads) and manufacturers of these categories will be asked to reduce sugar by at least 20%. Progress will be monitored by Public Health England on a six monthly basis. The report says that if there is insufficient progress by 2020 the Government will consider “other levers to achieve the same aims”.

In addition, there is to be a review of the current nutrient profile to update it in line with the latest scientific advances. In light of the Government’s ongoing commitment to reduce childhood obesity and the apparent willingness to take an interventionist approach, it is likely that the rules here will become stricter. Although there has been some criticism from campaigning groups at the lack of any reference in the report to the introduction of greater restrictions on advertising, the recent CAP consultation which closed at the end of July 2016 (and which was introduced before Brexit) on food and soft drink advertising to children expressly considers the question of whether both advertising codes should adopt the Department of Health’s nutrient profiling model to identify products which are high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). For more information about the recent CAP consultation click here. This may mean that greater restrictions on advertising HFSS foods to children are introduced indirectly. (Moreover, the Advertising Standards Authority has, in any event, been taking a stricter approach in its recent rulings on advertising complaints on HFSS foods.)

Finally the report hints that food labelling may be reformed post Brexit and concepts proposed in the Sugar in Food and Drinks (Targets, Labelling and Advertising) Bill may be back on the table as the report refers to the possibility of displaying sugar in teaspoons on pack.

For more information about food labelling and Brexit click here