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Viewpoint: Is an NHS sugar tax the best solution?

22 February 2016
Viewpoint: Is an NHS sugar tax the best solution?

The public sector is setting an example when it comes to health. Peter Ducker, chief executive of the Institute of Hospitality, asks whether a simple tax is really the best way to tackle a complex issue

Coca-Cola and McDonald's are again among the major sponsors of the Olympic Games this year. Their presence at such events has become the norm.

Whether it is appropriate that purveyors of products high in sugar and salt are associated with the world's biggest sporting event is a question largely answered by economics. In a free market, they have the same rights (and huge budgets) to promote themselves as Visa, Panasonic and Samsung.

We are also free to buy their products or ignore them and choose an alternative. Problems only occur when there isn't an alternative. When the choice from the vending machine is Coke or other sugary fizzy drinks, or the ready-to-eat food on the local high street is fried chicken, burgers, greasy pizza or more deep-fried chicken, then it becomes harder to view obesity as a solely self-inflicted condition.

Most believe the public sector has a responsibility to set an example. Opinion polls supported the 2014 ban on the sale of sugary drinks and snacks in state-run schools. Last month, Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England, pledged to introduce a sugar tax across hospitals. The expected proceeds of £20m-£40m a year would be used "to improve the health of the NHS's own 1.3 million workers".

On first reading, this proposal seems to pull in opposite directions by seeking to reduce sugar consumption (as part of the fight against obesity) but also raise revenue.

If the declared goal is to discourage the public from consuming sugary drinks and snacks, why not ban them completely from hospitals as they are similarly outlawed from state schools? Alternatively, why impose a tax just in hospital retail outlets and not across the entire country?

As hospital catering expert Mike Duckett points out, the proposal also ignores the fact that, in many cases, hospital caterers make extra income from vending sales which subsidises the patient meal service. Hospital caterers are already under great financial pressures and the last thing they need is to lose further income.

Lastly, there is no mention of healthy alternatives or how the extra money would be used to improve the health of NHS workers.

Combating obesity is a complex issue, but offering a choice of hot and cold, tasty and nutritious meals and snacks for NHS staff, visitors and patients alike should be central to the cause. The best way to achieve this is for each hospital to have a well-funded and professionally-run 21st-century catering operation that serves everybody.

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