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Calls for sugar tax intensify as study links obesity to cancer

Reducing sugar in soft drinks could help tackle obesity and diabetes. Credit: PA

Remember when the headlines used to be dominated by the damage cigarettes and alcohol were doing to our health? Now it seems barely a week goes by without a warning that our addiction to sugar is killing us.

Today three more reports will add to growing pressure on the government to take a more proactive approach to the UK's obesity problem.

First comes new research suggesting that 300,000 cases of diabetes and one million cases of obesity could be avoided over the next two decades if the amount of sugar in sweetened drinks was cut by 40%.

300,000
Cases of diabetes that could be avoided over next 20 years by cutting amount of sugar in soft drinks
1m
Cases of obesity that could be avoided over next 20 years bu cutting amount of sugar in soft drinks
10
number of teaspoons of sugar in some fizzy drinks

It may surprise you to learn that some fizzy drinks contain around ten teaspoons of the stuff.

The study, published in the Lancet, was led by Professor Graham MacGregor, the chairman of Action on Sugar. It calls on the government to ensure manufacturers reformulate their drinks by funding an independent nutrition agency to set and enforce mandatory targets.

Not surprisingly, the food and drink industry doesn't like it, insisting recipes are already being gradually updated to remove calories from products.

The pace of product reformulation has to be governed by consumer consent because we all expect our favourite food and drinks to taste a certain way. When brands make changes... they need to do so in a way and at a pace that their customers will accept

– Tim Rycroft, from the Food and Drink Federation

But more and more health experts are arguing we can't afford to rely on manufacturers promises, insisting much speedier action is needed.

For the first time, Cancer Research UK has announced it's backing a sugar tax after releasing a new report suggesting that being overweight or obese could cause around 700,000 new cancers in the UK by 2035.

700,000
Number of new cancers caused by being overweight or obese by 2035, according to Cancer Research

The charity found that if current trends continue three out of four of us could be obese in two decades time. That would cost the NHS an additional £2.5 billion a year.

To tackle what it calls our "obesity epidemic" Cancer Research wants:

  • A 9pm watershed ban on the TV advertising of junk food
  • A tax of 20p a litre on sugary drinks.

But would any of this change our habits? The British Soft Drinks Association has long argued there is no evidence a tax would have any impact on obesity.

But a new study released today on Mexico's tax on sweetened beverages found it was linked to a 12% cut in sales in just one year.

Just as importantly, there was also a rise in sales of untaxed products, in particular bottled plain water. That doesn't prove anyone has actually lost weight of course.

But the researchers, who published their evidence in the British Medical Journal, say their findings have important implications for policy discussions and decisions.

Jamie Oliver is a staunch supporter of the sugar tax Credit: PA

One of those petitioning hard for a levy on sugar is Jamie Oliver.

We're raising a generation of children where junk food is cheap, widely advertised and packed full of sugar. We need to give these kids a chance to be healthier adults - starting with a tax on sugary drinks to tackle obesity and diet-related disease

– Jamie Oliver

Today's three reports are certainly timely.

The World Health Organisation said in 2014 we all need to cut our sugar intake by half to improve our health. But at the end of last year the Prime Minister rejected Public Health England's call for a sugar tax.

Despite that, in the next few weeks, the government will finally release its Childhood Obesity Strategy.

With the debate on sugar raging, it's easy to see why it's been so delayed.

And once again, this week, its authors are getting plenty of food for thought.