Boris Johnson appears to rule out sugar and salt tax to cut junk food reliance
Boris Johnson has set himself on a likely collision course with the authors of a new national food strategy by effectively ruling out its key recommendation for a £3bn sugar and salt tax to tackle the dominance of junk food.
The government-commissioned report, drawn up by the restaurateur Henry Dimbleby, called the taxes a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to reduce reliance on processed food, with the resultant burden on the NHS.
Asked about the proposal after a speech in Coventry, Johnson said: “I’m not, I must say, attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hardworking people. Let me just signal that. I shall study the report with interest.”
He was non-committal on the report more generally, saying: “It’s an independent report. I think there are doubtless some good ideas in it. As I said earlier on we believe in tackling obesity, trying to help people to lose weight, promoting exercise and tackling junk food advertising and so on.”
The report’s most eye-catching recommendation would be a levy of £3 a kilo on sugar and £6 a kilo on salt sold wholesale for use in processed food, restaurants and catering, which it says would be a world first. This would raise up to £3.4bn a year, some of which should fund an expansion of free schools meals to an extra 1.1 million children and an overhaul of Britain’s food and cooking culture.
The proposal, which could put 1p on a bag of crisps and 7p on a Mars bar, was criticised by some as regressive for hitting the poorest consumers hardest. However, Dimbleby believes the tax would incentivise manufacturers to reduce salt and sugar levels by reformulating products.
Johnson’s apparent decision to dismiss the plan came despite his pledge to launch a so-called war on obesity, sparked in part by the prime minister’s belief that his very serious bout of coronavirus last year was exacerbated by his own weight.
During his speech on Thursday, Johnson cited the need to tackle the ubiquity of junk food and help people lose weight as part of his proposals to “level up” unequal opportunities around the country.
But his dismissal of the tax plan will be expected to dismay Dimbleby and many on the expert panel who helped him with the report.
Speaking before Johnson’s speech, Dimbleby said there had been “a sort of arms race for sugar and our tolerance for sugar – we’ve needed more and more – and we’re just trying to take that down and get the sugar out of the system”.
He told BBC Breakfast: “There are two parts to the strategy – one is about changing our long-term culture, making us eat more fresh nutritious food, and the other is about reducing the harm of that processed food and reducing the addictive nature of it.”