The great sugar tax debate: Jamie Oliver gives his view

Lily Barclay talks to Jamie Oliver about why he wants a sugar tax, his fears for the future of children's health and his desire for change...

Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver believes sugar is playing a damaging role in rising global health problems and supports the tax on sweetened drinks. We sit down to ask what he hopes to achieve and why he's so determined to take action...

What good do you think will come from having a higher tax on sugary drinks?   

Can of sugar being poured with blue background
OK, a sugar levy or tax will only be effective if the money raised is ring-fenced to go to into food education and health initiatives to prevent diet-related disease.  If it just ends up going into a big melting pot of other taxes, then it's just another tax and there's no point in doing it. The public are very smart and if they know that money is going directly to help solve a problem, then that makes things easier. Plus, in Mexico where a sugar tax has been in place for a while now, more people are choosing to hydrate with water, which is not only better for us, but also free.

"We've seen some extraordinary changes because of the obesity epidemic."

What are your concerns for the NHS if sugar and junk food consumption remains unchanged?
The Health Service will crumble. I spend a lot of time talking to senior doctors and people working across all types of health care and they all say the same thing. Diet-related disease is costing way too much – billions of pounds a year too much – and it's just getting worse. Over the last few years, we've seen some extraordinary changes because of the obesity epidemic. Just one example: I was talking to some firemen earlier this year and they were telling me that they've had to invest in new equipment to get obese people out of burning buildings because it takes up to four firemen, risking their lives, to successfully rescue them.  

Do you think our children’s food habits have drastically changed from when you were a kid yourself?  

Girl eating sugary bowl of cereal
Absolutely. There's so much more consumption of processed food and sugar-sweetened drinks that it's no surprise we've got a broken relationship with food. Ever since my first book, The Naked Chef, I've tried to inspire people to get back in love with cooking from scratch and to show people that cooking can be easy, quick, fun and you end up with delicious, nutritious food.

" There's so much more consumption of processed food and sugar-sweetened drinks that it's no surprise we've got a broken relationship with food."

What has hit you as being the biggest effect of unhealthy food on children and teenagers? What are your fears for their future health?

Anyone who saw the Sugar Rush programme will have been shocked by the scene with poor Mario having his teeth extracted under general anaesthetic, and the fact that this happens to 26,000 primary school-aged children in the UK every year is terrifying – and it's all because of sugar. These extractions, which happen in hospitals every single day, are entirely preventable. If we don't act on sugar now then this situation – plus all the other health problems associated with being overweight or obese – will only get worse.

If you could go back in time to when you began your first campaign for better school dinners, what one piece of advice would you give yourself?  

Jam roly poly pudding sliced with jug of custard
That's a hard one. I think it's important to realise when you're dealing with politicians, as I have for over 10 years, that they aren't around forever and that you'll soon be having to meet a new Secretary of State, Minister or Prime Minister.  I think some of the men and women who become politicians genuinely want to leave behind a positive legacy but sometimes you just need to help them to decide what that is.  

"I think some of the men and women who become politicians genuinely want to leave behind a positive legacy."

What has been your most inspiring moment since starting your food campaign work? And what changes have you seen since you began?  

It's always difficult to choose just one. Every year I go to the graduation ceremony for the apprentices at Fifteen restaurant. I get to talk to the parents and carers, and that's always inspiring. But then you have moments like when Mick the Miner cooked for the first time in Ministry of Food and when the government of the day committed to £280m to invest in school meals. All of these moments were inspiring and there are many more moments like these.

"You wonder whether it's worth it or whether it's better to just open a little restaurant in the country and leave it at that."

Have you ever had a moment when you’ve felt like giving up in any of your campaigns so far?  

Not really. There are times when it's tough, of course, and you wonder whether it's worth it or whether it's better to just open a little restaurant in the country and leave it at that. But I think I'll be doing this for a good many years to come and I'm hoping to steadily bring people, businesses and governments with me.  We can't carry on the way we are. Something has to change.

You’re known for campaigning to improve food standards for children, do you have a particular concern you want to address next?  

Childhood obesity is the real focus for the next few years. Of course there are other issues to look at – like TTIP or food waste, for example – but nutrition for kids is the priority.

What does success look like for you? If you could inspire one change what would it be? 

Success would be an end to childhood obesity globally, which could be generations away but we have to make a start and we have to do it now. I would start by inspiring the UK Government to take a global lead and announce a robust and broad child obesity strategy, which includes a sugar tax, reformulation legislation, making fresh water more freely available in public places, improving food education, making it easier for people on lower incomes to have access to fresh fruit and veg, and a number of other important interventions. There isn't one magic bullet but if enough changes are made together, we have a chance.

Do you think we should have sugar tax on sweetened drinks? Or do you think that would cause additional problems? We would love to hear your opinions... 

Comments, questions and tips

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17th May, 2016
Articles like these are very informative but they aren't going to solve the childhood obesity problem. Only parents can do that. It starts at home. My boyfriend has a 29-year-old daughter who is morbidly obese (300 lb+) and she easily feeds her 9-year-old daughter 80 grams of sugar a day (multiple Sprites and various sugary treats in lieu of dinner when she turns up her nose at anything remotely healthy)...4 times the recommended allowance. Last night she came for dinner at my house because it was my boyfriend's birthday and her mom let her forego fajitas and have not just 1 but 2 pieces of birthday cake instead. I believe she WANTS her daughter to look like her. We've tried talking to her numerous times and have tried encouraging better eating habits but she seems actually proud that her daughter is "off the charts" at the doctor's office. She actually dumps MORE sugar on her already pre-sweetened cereal. It has caused many fights between my boyfriend and I because we feel powerless to help her. Now she is expecting her second baby and she will be harming another human life. Until parents break the cycle of "loving their children to death with sugar," it will continue and eventually our world will look like the very round characters in Wall-E. Making your child obese is child abuse, and I wish more parents would recognize that.
2nd Dec, 2015
Thanks, Jamie O. Good for you to press for helping people understand the health deficits of sugar. I like the idea of taxing the businesses that pour on the most sugar. Stop it before it gets to the consumers. It is like the tobacco industry....allow the sugar industry to feed people the poison, and then expect the public purse to pick up the health care bill. It is not difficult to cut added sugar out of your diet, but why keep advertising, especially to children, in order to sell more and more toxic food?
2nd Dec, 2015
I absolutely agree with Jamie!!!! Good on him! He's the best good food advocate we have in this country, Jamie, you rock!!!
30th Nov, 2015
Better to educate and inform. Tackle manufacturers first - do it by regulation so that taxing consumers at point of sale isn't necessary. If manufacturers aren't FIRST dealt with, taxing purchasers is oppressing them especially if they're parents being pestered by children who don't understand (or don't want to understand) about high prices. Recruit celebrities as role models, improve school nutrition, etc. The government's after a quick fix but the longer game gets better results and happier people. E.g. thanks to info, rather than being forced, I gradually but happily reduced from 2.5 sugars in coffee to a half.
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