Sunday 23 April 2017

Varadkar vows to tackle fizzy drinks over obesity

'A child who consumes a fizzy drink a day will put on one kilo in weight in 18 months'. Photo: despositphotos
'A child who consumes a fizzy drink a day will put on one kilo in weight in 18 months'. Photo: despositphotos
How many teaspoons of sugar in your soft drink?
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

A child who consumes a fizzy drink a day will put on one kilo in weight in 18 months.

The warning is contained in a letter sent by Health Minister Leo Varadkar to Finance Minister Michael Noonan, asking him to impose a 20pc "sugar tax" on sweetened drinks.

The letter, obtained by the Irish Independent, was sent in advance of the October Budget in a bid to bring in the controversial measure to help curb the nation's consumption of fizzy drinks which is fuelling our worrying obesity levels.

Mr Varadkar said Ireland had a high per-capita consumption of soft drinks, with more than three-quarters of young people aged five to 18 years having one soft drink each day.

He warned that the World Health Organisation (WHO) is to issue new guidelines saying sugar should not make up more than 5pc of a person's calorie intake daily. However, the evidence is that sugary drinks are now making up 13-14pc of some people's daily energy intake in this country, despite having little or no nutrients.

The sugar tax proposal was rejected at this stage by Mr Noonan and his officials, partly due to the extra costs involved in administering the tax and the impact it would have on cross-border buying.

But Mr Varadkar outlined the consequences of Ireland's "sugar rush", saying: "Obesity presents a major public health problem for Ireland with one in four children now overweight or obese at age three.

"This results in a serious and increasing drain on the health service's budget and is one of the major challenges for a healthy Ireland. The annual cost of obesity to adults amounts to €1.13bn."

He said: "It is of concern that more Irish children are overweight than in most European countries.

"The WHO is predicting that Ireland will become the most obese nation in Europe by 2030. If not tackled urgently, this will lead to an increase in the prevalence of chronic disease such as Type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease, as there is strong evidence to suggest that childhood obesity tracks into adulthood." He acknowledged that no single initiative will reverse the upward trend in obesity but rather a "combination of measures should make a difference".

His officials proposed the methods used would involve a "volumetric" tax which would be based on the amount of sugar in a particular product.

"Similar approaches are used in France and Hungary. It is worth noting that no objection has been raised by the European Commission to the introduction by France, Hungary and Finland, following the introduction of such as public health measure.

"It is worth noting that over a 12-month period following the introduction of the levy in Mexico, there was a 10pc reduction in sugared drinks consumption."

A briefing note to the minister from the deputy chief medical officer Dr John Devlin said that, even at 10pc, the tax could result in 10,000 fewer adults being obese.

The consumption of sugary drinks is more prevalent among lower socio-economic groups.

"In the past, Irish market research demonstrated that there would be public support for the introduction of a levy," it said. The amount of funds generated by the measure varied from €50m a year to €134m depending on the rate of the tax.

The tax would be based on the volume of sugar in a fizzy drink and could typically see 10c added to the cost of a can of premium cola.

Irish Independent

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