News Children's Food Campaign

How the sugary drinks tax campaign was won

To think when we launched the campaign for a sugary drinks duty in January 2013, when the idea seemed – and indeed was – far outside of the political mainstream, that three years later it would be included in the Budget is quite a fantastic achievement. It just shows how people and campaigns can change government policy and overcome the might of industry lobbying, vested interests and initially sceptical politicians. Read on for a brief recap.

Wow! Talk about a campaign making headlines. Our call for a sugary drinks tax became a headline measure in March 2016's Budget, and was splashed across newspaper front pages the day after. The Chancellor announced that a levy on sugary drinks will be implemented in 2018 across the UK, with the revenue (at least in England) allocated to improving school sports, supporting breakfast clubs and similar activities.  

It’s going to take some time to get used to hearing a Chancellor of the Exchequer and Government spokespeople touring the media studios advocating for a sugary drinks tax and repeating some of our key messages! 

It is a bold step, which should encourage people to shift towards healthier drinks and sends out a wider message about our need to cut down on sugar, and for businesses to reduce the sugar in their products. But there are still aspects of the proposals which we want to see clarified, loopholes on certain exempt drinks to close, and a desire to see it implemented much sooner.  And on its own a sugary drinks tax won’t solve the UK’s childhood obesity or dental health crisis. Which is why we continue to push the Government to introduce robust restrictions on unhealthy food marketing online and across all forms of media, alongside a series of other measures on reformulation, labelling and the provision of healthier, more sustainable food in our communities.

But this week is definitely a moment for everyone involved in the campaign to savour: a victory for children’s health, and for everyone’s efforts to get us there. Whether you signed a petition, emailed your MP, shared your support on social media, joined in a discussion on the issue, took action as part of one of the many organisations backing the tax, or even dressed up as a tooth fairy …. a huge thank you.

And really we shouldn’t be surprised at the campaign’s success.  For a start, this is about an evidence-based policy which is targeted, proportionate and works.  As the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) recognised in their analysis of the Budget: a “tax on sugary drinks is a good starting point for reducing excess sugar consumption” and it will benefit households with children the most.  And the writing has very much been on the wall since the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly’s recent motions in favour of a sugary drinks tax, and the Irish ruling party heading into their General Election with a manifesto commitment on introducing a tax there. 

But by no means was our success inevitable. It is worth recalling a number of key moments in the campaign: 

  • The 60+ organisations – ranging from medical and children’s charities, to trade unions and environmental NGOs – who stuck their necks out to back a sugary drinks tax when we published our first report recommending the measure.
  • The launch of our ‘tax impact calculator’, using academic modelling to demonstrate the tax’s likely reduction in diet-related ill-health and savings to the NHS in your local area.
  • Our protest handing out toothbrushes outside the newly re-branded Coca-Cola London Eye in January 2014, which so captured the media and public’s attention.
  • Jamie Oliver’s Sugar Rush documentary and our joint petition to the Government, signed by over 150,000 people.
  • The Health Select Committee’s report backing a sugary drinks tax – we, Jamie and several academics and charity chiefs gave evidence in Parliament to that inquiry.
  • The first parliamentary meeting specifically about a sugary drinks tax, addressed by both Jamie and our Children's Food Campaign.
  • Public Heath England’s publication of its evidence review, which supported the introduction of a sugary drinks tax.
  • The first Commons debate on a sugary drinks tax.

Yet that doesn’t begin to capture the breadth of the support and the huge momentum built up behind introducing a sugary drinks tax.  Doctors, dentists, public health advocates, academics, teachers, chefs, journalists and politicians have all been hugely influential in building and then championing the case for action. And of course none of this would have been possible without the support of thousands of parents and the wider public, including yourselves.  

Together we have achieved a great milestone in government intervention to improve children’s diets and health. That is the power of campaigning, and that is the ethos of the Children’s Food Campaign.  But we still have a long way to go, starting with using the next few months to persuade the Government that their Childhood Obesity Strategy should contain the same level of leadership and bold interventions as the Chancellor’s move.

Published Monday 18 April 2016

Children's Food Campaign: Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.

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