This week the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver came to Westminster to talk to MPs about his ‘sugar rush’ campaign.
I’m an admirer of Jamie’s leadership. His charity restaurants training disadvantaged young people are inspiring, and I enthusiastically helped his school dinners campaign for healthy eating before I was elected in 2005.
Jamie’s latest mission is to take action against the role sugar is playing in rising global health problems. One third of children now leave primary school overweight or obese.
Tooth decay is the most common reason that children aged five to nine are admitted to hospital - with 26,000 cases a year of multiple tooth extractions under anaesthetic - and type-2 diabetes is costing the NHS around £9 billion a year.
Studies show that soft drinks with added sugar are the largest single source of sugar in the diets of UK school children and teenagers. Jamie’s campaign, which he launched with a Channel 4 TV documentary, calls for a tax on sugary drinks.
He believes that a 7p tax on a can of soft drink with added sugar - pure fruit juices would be exempt - would raise £1 billion a year which could be ring-fenced to pay for a Children’s Health Fund to improve diet.
It’s one element of a proposed national strategy which would also include measures such as banning the advertising of high fat, sugar and salt foods before the 9pm watershed.
Advocates of a tax on sugary drinks say that in countries where it has been introduced (such as Mexico) demand has fallen. Opponents question whether overall sugar consumption really reduces, and also argue that such a tax is regressive, with the poor paying disproportionately more.
I don’t want to see higher taxes overall, but it’s not a bad principle to tax discretionary items that are bad for us. So I think Jamie’s proposals are worth looking at.
He believes the tax would be an important symbol in the fight for better child health, and that sugary drinks that are ruthlessly promoted through devices such as sports advertising are a legitimate target.
We have got to deal with the rising social and economic costs of childhood obesity. Once again, the time for Jamie’s campaign has come.