In HIP 138 Ben Bruges examined our addiction to sugar. Here he explores what’s being done to combat its impact. 

The intergovernmental Office for Economic Cooperation and Development says the UK is Western Europe’s most obese nation. Obesity costs the NHS more than £6 billion every year, with indirect costs at an estimated £27 billion. More than £14 billion is spent on treating type 2 diabetes. Shockingly, more is spent annually treating obesity and diabetes than on the police, fire and judicial system combined. So, what are we doing about it? 

The tax on sugar

Most experts agree that the national sugar tax has had a beneficial impact. Over half of the drinks manufacturers have cut sugar in their drinks since it was implemented in March 2016, and 45 million kilos of sugar is not being consumed each year. There’s been a reduction in the sales of soft drinks by 30% – the biggest source of sugar for overweight teenagers, 80% of whom will remain obese as adults, and will lose an average 15-20 years of healthy life as a result.

According to Shirley Cramer, the chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health: “The evidence shows that the sugar levy has worked. Nearly half of the soft drinks market has reduced the sugar in their products to avoid charges.” For example, the sugar content of Irn Bru has been cut from 10.3g to 4.7g per 100ml. Coca-Cola decided it didn’t want to “alienate” its customers by changing its main offering (10.6g), but instead has shrunk bottle sizes (1.5l bottles rather than 1.75l), sold a lot more bottles of Zero Sugar, and cut sugar levels in other drinks, including Fanta, Sprite, Dr Pepper, Lilt and Oasis.

And yet this successful policy of the Conservative government is now under attack… by the Conservatives. Boris Johnson, when Mayor of London, said that tackling obesity was “one of the biggest” health challenges and insisted on adding 10p on sugary drinks at City Hall. Prime Minister Johnson, however, has threatened to end the sugar tax, complaining about “the creep of the nanny state”. 

One of the main strategies by ‘big sugar’ to oppose the spread of the sugar tax worldwide is to attempt to put the focus on a lack of activity, rather than on their products and marketing as being contributory to poor health. Unsurprisingly, Johnson echoes this attempt to divert attention from sugar reduction: “If we want people to lose weight and live healthier lifestyles, we should encourage people to walk, cycle and do more exercise.” It remains to be seen whether Johnson will follow through with the threat to end the sugar tax. 

Cramer is clear: “We should be building on the success of the sugar levy, not turning back the clock on the progress that has been made so far.”

What’s happening locally?

Meanwhile the East Sussex County Council (ESCC) has established the East Sussex Healthy Weight Partnership, bringing together the local NHS, Hastings Borough Council and the voluntary and community sector. The aim is to work together to help children and adults achieve and then maintain a healthier weight. A major action plan is promised by 2020, but in the meantime there are several local initiatives that are starting to have an impact. 

The East Sussex School Health Service has set up two campaigns: ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ and ‘#Goals’ aimed at primary-aged children and adolescents respectively, providing information, emotional support and a range of activities designed to improve diet and increase physical activity. 

Active Hastings targets individuals and communities with low levels of physical activity.  During 2018/19 they delivered 1,100 physical activity sessions. Of the participants, 41% were not physically active enough and 16% completely inactive before participating in the programme.

East Sussex Nursery Transformation Programme focuses on supporting families at risk of childhood obesity by helping nurseries adopt a positive approach to healthy eating and physical activity. Ofsted has recognised the benefits of the programme. Of 180 nurseries, 96% had increased (69%) or maintained (27%) health recommendation targets. 

The sugar tax, as well as working to decrease sugar consumption, also provides £8.5 million per year to East Sussex schools to help with the delivery of sports programmes: raising the profile of sport, increasing the knowledge, confidence and skills of staff, offering a broader range of sport experiences to all pupils and increased participation in competitive sports. 

Cut down, be more aware of sugar 

Of course, we all can do better! Eat the whole fresh fruit, not the juice concentrate (which has all the fibre removed). Fizzy drinks are full of sugar but not nutrition – for children, water and milk might be a better choice. Watch out for sugar in bread, yogurts, cereals and other foods where you really wouldn’t expect it – read the labels. Bake your own biscuits or cakes with a third less sugar in them. Look out for ‘light’ and ‘low sugar’ versions of food and drink, but don’t believe the headline claim, check the sugar content, and bear in mind that there are potential health problems with artificial sweeteners. Sweets, if you must, should be a treat, not a daily habit, and remember, you can re-educate your taste buds to be more sensitive to sweetness, so you can cut down, while enjoying the natural sweetness of whole fruit.

And maybe, just maybe, consider taking the 30-day sugar-free challenge! If you do, share your experience with us.  

To learn more about East Sussex Healthy Weight Partnership, contact Peter Aston (chair) on [email protected]

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