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Extend soft drink tax to foods high in sugar and salt, top doctor recommends

The chief medical officer has outlined her recommendations to tackle the obesity crisis Photo: PA

A tax on soft drinks should be widened to include sweetened milk-based drinks with added sugar and the Government should also take action to eliminate added sugar in baby foods, the Chief Medical Officer for England has recommended.

In her latest annual report, Professor Dame Sally Davies makes a series of suggestions for how to radically improve the nation’s health by 2040, by reducing inequalities and using new technology and research such as artificial intelligence (AI).

To tackle the obesity crisis, she recommends the Government review the use of financial disincentives in relation to foods that are high in sugar and salt along with incentives to increase fruit and vegetable consumption.

She also want to see ministers set more ambitious targets for salt reduction in food and introduce a specific target to halve current inequalities in childhood obesity by 2030 or sooner.

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Prof Davies’s report stresses the importance of collecting data and she suggests a new Health Index, which would be tracked alongside the nation’s GDP.

This will capture the social determinants of health, risk factors such as obesity and outcomes such as cancer survival, which she said would also help reduce health inequalities by 2040.

“A more equal, healthier society is within our grasp but we need to be brave, bold and seize the moment,” she said.

“Health is our main asset as a nation – a healthier population translates to a healthier economy.

“By repositioning health and reshaping our environment, we can make it easier to live well for longer and reduce the gap in health inequalities between the richest and poorest in our society

“We can and should make our environment fairer and healthier for all.”

Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Dame Sally Davies has released her latest annual report Credit: Yui Mok/PA

Prof Davies’ report highlights areas of promise for AI, including in imaging, which she said will diagnose conditions more speedily, regardless of where in the country the patient lives.

She said that if cancer survival was equitable, 10,000 deaths within five years of diagnosis would be avoidable.

Prof Davies said that by 2040, officials will be able to accurately predict chronic diseases a decade before symptoms show, enabling individualised prevention measures.

Her report identifies wearable technology, such as novel biosensors that offer continuous monitoring as a way to transform chronic disease management.

Other technological advancements will bring the diagnostics laboratory to the patient as part of their daily lives, she said.

She said that by focusing on the cause of diseases, clear interventions and innovations to make an impact can be identified, such as by eating more healthily or using wearable technology to help manage long-term conditions.

Prof Davies said this will support the ambition of healthy life expectancy to increase by five years for all, with the gap between the most and least deprived communities halved.

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Tim Elwell-Sutton, assistant director of strategic partnerships at the Health Foundation and an author of the report, said it supported the recommendations.

“We should look beyond economic indicators as measures of whether our society is flourishing and prioritise health for the benefit of individuals, society and the economy,” he said.

“As we set out in the report, we need an expanded view of what it means to be healthy, along with better ways of measuring this at national and local levels.

“We welcome the recommendation for an index for wellbeing, which includes social determinants of health.

“The vision to achieve a healthier UK population and reduce health inequalities by 2040 is aspirational but not unachievable.

“However, it will need action across all sectors of society and investment to tackle the underlying causes of health inequalities – such as poverty, education and housing.”

Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of campaign groups Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, said: “We strongly support the call by the Chief Medical Officer for mandated targets for salt, sugar and calories, particularly given the very weak approach of PHE in enforcing the current voluntary programmes.

“Unhealthy food – that is, foods that are high in salt, sugar and calories – is now the major cause of death and disability in the UK. Salt leads to raised blood pressure, which is the biggest cause of strokes and heart disease.

“Too much sugar and calories leads to obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer. We are now calling on the Government and the food industry to take immediate action and prevent all these unnecessary deaths and suffering.”