Boris Johnson looked to be slimming down his war on ‘sin taxes’ today after a backlash from health experts.
The Tory leadership front runner launched an attack on measures such as the flagship sugar tax on fizzy drinks overnight – insisting such levies will be put under review if he reaches No10.
He also vowed to freeze new taxes on foods which are high in salt, fat or sugar – and argued those who want to lose weight should just exercise more.
But the pledge – which came as it emerged obesity is now a bigger cause of many cancers than smoking – sparked fury from health campaigners who accused Mr Johnson of ‘turning back the clock’.
Tory former health minister Steve Brine branded it ‘dog whistle politics’ and said he was in ‘despair’. Others pointed out that Mr Johnson had himself introduced a sugar tax in City Hall when he was Mayor of London.
Speaking during a campaign visit in Berkshire today, Mr Johnson appeared to soften his language – joking about his own weight issues as he stressed that obesity was the ‘number one public health challenge’ and saying he would be guided by ‘evidence’.
The only policy he singled out for condemnation was a ‘milkshake tax’ mooted by his own ally Matt Hancock. Aides have also made clear that tobacco and alcohol taxes will not be reviewed.
Boris Johnson (pictured on a visit to the Thames Valley Police training centre in Reading today) has promised to review the government’s flagship sugar tax on fizzy drinks if he reaches No10, and insisted it will not be extended to milkshakes
A levy on soft drinks was introduced by the government in April 2018 in an attempt to cut the amount of sugar they contain
Mr Johnson said: ‘Obesity is a huge public health challenge, probably now our number one public health challenge.
‘It costs the NHS absolutely billions, we have got to deal with obesity but we have got to do it in a way that is evidence based and what I want to see is evidence, actually evidence that new taxes on this or that item of food, taxes which fall disproportionately on poorer families, actually stop people from being so fat.
‘You have got to make sure that it is discouraging people from consuming what they are doing, or whether it is just a bit of a gesture.
‘Now everybody struggles with their weight, me no less than anybody else, we all know what the issues are.
‘But my question is, is it really sensible to put a new tax on milkshakes which will be paid disproportionately by poorer families when the evidence seems to be at the moment ambiguous about whether those taxes actually reduce consumption and help people with their obesity?’
Boris imposed ‘sugar tax’ in CIty Hall as Mayor of London
Boris Johnson imposed a ‘sugar tax’ on drinks at City Hall when he was mayor of London.
The Tory leadership front runner put a 10p charge on all added-sugar drinks sold in the building in 2016.
The proceeds went to health campaigns.
Mr Johnson said at the time that tackling obesity was ‘one of the biggest’ health challenges for politicians.
‘I hope this initiative will allow us to raise awareness of the problem and encourage people to think about their diets,’ he said.
A levy on soft drinks was introduced in April 2018 in an attempt to cut the amount of sugar they contain.
Aides said Mr Johnson’s policy will not apply to other sin taxes such as those on cigarettes and alcohol.
Cancer Research UK chief executive Michelle Mitchell stressed the significance of the taxes and praised their success in lowering smoking rates and removing sugar from diets.
‘Taxes on less healthy products do have a positive effect,’ she said.
‘They have been highly effective in bringing down smoking rates to record lows, including within deprived communities, and the Treasury’s own analysis showed the tax on sugary drinks took 90 million kg of sugar out of the nation’s diet on day one.
‘Physical activity is one way to lose weight but the Government also has a big role to play if we are to significantly reduce obesity levels.’
The Obesity Health Alliance’s Caroline Cerny said voluntary programmes for the food industry to cut sugar ‘have not had the same success’ as the tax.
‘The levy is supported by the public and welcomed by a wide range of health experts and is vitally needed as part of a package of measures to help create a healthier environment for everyone,’ she said.
Mr Brine posted on Twitter: ‘As the Public Health Minister who oversaw the introduction of the sugary drinks levy, I totally despair at this.
‘Transparent dog whistle politics dressed up as something thinking. It is the exact opposite.’
Allies of Jeremy Hunt said the policy exposed divisions in Mr Johnson’s camp.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock – a backer of Mr Johnson – recently signed off extending the sugar tax to milkshakes, and a ban on sales of energy drinks to children.
Mr Hunt’s side said this showed Mr Johnson’s ‘own team are profoundly against’ his policies.
The move was hailed by low-tax activists, however.
Daniel Pryor of the Adam Smith Institute said: ‘It’s about time someone stood up against the killjoys who want to ban Tony the Tiger and force you to pay more for your sugary drinks.’
Mr Johnson, pictured being given a self-defence lesson at the police training centre today, admitted that he has struggled with his weight
The Tory front runner was enjoying himself as he toured the police training base in Reading this morning
But the Royal Society for Public Health argued you ‘cannot outrun a bad diet’ and said it was wrong to put the onus on individuals to change their habits (file photo)
What is the sugar tax and has it been working?
From April 2018, soft drinks companies have been required to pay a levy on drinks with added sugar.
If a drink contains between 5g and 8g of sugar per 100ml the tax is 18p per litre, whereas if a drink has more than 8g of sugar per 100ml, the tax is 24p.
Fruit juices and milk are not included in the tax.
The move aims to help tackle childhood obesity. Sugar-sweetened soft drinks are now the single biggest source of dietary sugar for children and teenagers.
Some drinks, including Fanta, Lucozade, Sprite, Dr Pepper and Vimto, had their recipes changed so they contained less than 5g of sugar and the price did not need to be put up.
However, others like Coca Cola and Pepsi refused to reduce the amount of sugar and, as a result, the price of them increased.
The Government has predicted the levy will raise £240million a year, which will be spent on sports clubs and breakfast clubs in schools.
The sugar tax raised £153.8million in the first six months after it was introduced, between April and October 2018.