Chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies is contemplating whether to recommend a tax on unhealthy foods, according to multiple sources. The contentious decision comes after Professor Davies expressed her belief that the British government is set to miss its childhood obesity targets for 2030 unless urgent action is taken.
The policy shift comes following the success of a similar sugar-tax levied in 2018 against fizzy drinks, which Professor Davies claims has helped families to live healthier lifestyles. In an interview with the BBC, she revealed that "I want parents to be incentivised to buy healthy food," adding, "We need to make sure that fresh fruit and vegetables are cheap. Maybe we have to subsidise them by charging more, by taxing unhealthy food. Parents are then nudged to buy the healthy version because it's cheaper."
Though the proposals have not yet become official policy, it has been suggested that the tax could extend to everything from high sugar baby food, ice cream and cereals, to fast food favourites such as pizza and nuggets. Though the prospect of tasty food costing significantly more is certainly cause for alarm, Professor Davies insists that she and her department are not "anti-fun" - though she acknowledged that she was also being "as bold as I can be" with the suggestions.
Though Professor Davies and other advocates have pointed to the success of initiatives like the sugar tax as a precedent for the decision, critics are not so sure. The food industry has long held the opinion that taxes do not affect consumer behaviour, while others have expressed concerns that the measures could make it even harder for poorer members of society to feed their families. Despite the criticism, Professor Davies insisted to the BBC that she believed the proposals would ultimately help families, whilst adding, "I want the basket of food parents buy not to cost any more."
Nonetheless, opposition from within the industry promises to be fierce. Also speaking to the BBC, Tim Rycroft of the Food and Drink Federation labelled Professor Davies plans “headline grabbing measures”, adding that the organisation “will only support evidence-based policy that is proven to be effective." As we understand more about how what we eat affects our health, it seems certain that the conflict between medical professionals and those representing the interests of the wider industry will only deepen. What this means for the future of our food remains unclear.