Are Britons becoming less sweet on sugar?
By Rob Melvill, Research Team Leader

In October Jamie Oliver urged the Government to be “bold and brave” to tackle childhood obesity by introducing a sugar tax. Just this morning, the Commons Health Select Committee has supported Mr Oliver’s campaign, calling for a 20% tax on full sugar soft drinks alongside other initiatives to address this growing problem.

This issue has been increasing in prominence, and Mr Oliver’s attempt to link such a tax with combatting childhood obesity also appears to have resonated with the public. His petition has gathered over 150,000 signatures and is creating major headaches for the food and drink industry.

However, such a levy has been criticised as everything from a classist attack on the working class, to a regressive, ineffective and oversimplified way of tackling the obesity crisis. In such a contentious environment, where do the public stand on the sugar tax, and to what extent has the ‘sugar debate’ cut through?

ComRes highlighted earlier this year that there was limited public appetite for such regulation. In 2014, a little more than a third of Britons (35%) reported that they would support a new tax on food and drinks which contain high levels of sugar. However, the recent media storm appears to have hardened attitudes. Polling conducted by ComRes has found that a small majority do now support such a tax (54%). This represents a 19 percentage point increase in support in an 18 month period; a cause for undoubted concern for producers and retailers of high sugar products.

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As the debate around sugar intensifies, perceptions of the ingredient will change. For example, in a recent survey where Britons were asked to state their spontaneous associations with ‘sugar’, the words ‘bad’, ‘unhealthy’ and ‘fattening’ were most commonly reported. This emphasises that sugar is widely perceived to be a guilty pleasure, posing a reputational challenge for the food and drink industry.

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Additionally, policy-makers tend to think the food and drink industry could do more to tackle the causes of obesity. Pre-election, only 17% of MPs believed the industry was already taking enough action to address the increasing prevalence of the condition. Sugar consumption was particularly in the firing line, with half of MPs (48%) indicating that they would support a tax on sugary drinks and high fat foods.

While the Conservative Government has ruled out introducing a sugar tax for the time being, the issue of Britain’s expanding waistline lingers, and with it the weight of expectation that something needs to be done continues to build.

A sugar tax is not the only option on the table though. The Health Select Committee has recommended a raft of measures to tackle obesity, and ComRes polling has found the public broadly support various actions. For example, the majority of the public support compulsory health warning labels on food and drinks which are high in sugar (85%) and legal maximum limits on the amount of sugar allowed in food and drinks (72%).

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In such an uncertain climate, the food and drink industry faces a multitude of risks. The fact that approaching half of Britons (46%) report that they would even support an outright ban on the sale of products high in sugar highlights the extent of the challenge. Although it is important to recognise that a small majority do still oppose such a measure (52%) – and that it is debatable whether public support would remain as high if people’s favourite treats were to disappear from shelves.

However, what is clear is that public support for some sort of intervention is increasing, and may reach a tipping point. If the industry is unable to reassure policy-makers that they are doing all they can to promote healthier diets, the momentum behind such direct actions may prove difficult to resist.

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