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My Lords, we have challenged business, through our responsibility deal calorie reduction pledge, to take action to help people eat fewer calories. This can include helping reduce sugar consumption. Businesses are already taking action; for example, soft drinks manufacturers which are signed up to the calorie reduction pledge are reducing sugar and calories in their drinks, and we are looking to others to join force.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with the Secretary of State for Health that legislation may be required in this area if other measures do not succeed? In the mean time, does he think consideration needs to be given to changing tax regimes so that the tax may be rather higher on very sugary soft drinks, and rather lower on drinks that are less full of sugar? Does he also think that we may need to restrict the amount of sugar provided in some products, such as breakfast cereals targeted at children, so that parents either as consumers themselves or watching their children can see how many spoons of sugar are going on to their cereal, rather than simply accepting the amount of sugar already produced by the manufacturers?
My noble friend asks a number of questions. I am sure he will have welcomed, as I did, the announcement a few days ago by two major manufacturers of sugary drinks that they were substantially reducing the sugar content of their drinks. This is in part a result of the engagement that we have had with the food industry, which, in public health terms, is taking on responsibility for the products that it makes.
While there are advocates for taxation, in 2012 my department reviewed the international evidence of the effect of taxation on people's consumption of food and drink. There is very limited empirical evidence, certainly from literature, but also in practice that that has an effect on body weight or health outcomes. There is a range of possible unintended consequences, including swapping for other foods which may be even less healthy than the ones that we are trying to cut out.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the overeating habits of pregnant women can be programmed into the foetus, so that when born the children will not stand a chance unless people accept that the answer to the obesity epidemic is to eat less? Although exercise is important in reducing cholesterol, for well-being and so on, it has very little to do with the control of the obesity epidemic.
My noble friend makes a good point, but in healthy children exercise is very important as a preventive measure for obesity and diabetes. The central point he makes is absolutely right. We look to healthcare workers, not only health visitors but also midwives, through programmes such as the Healthy Child programme and Start for Life, to get families and children off to the right start, so that they eat properly and live healthy lifestyles.
My Lords, we are clear that artificial sweeteners are safe if taken as intended. That is the advice of the European Food Safety Authority and we take that advice. However, encouraging people to take low-diet fizzy drinks, for example, in preference to sugary drinks is problematic because all fizzy drinks have an adverse effect on tooth enamel. We need to be balanced in our messages but we think that artificial sweeteners have a role in a proper calorie-controlled diet.
My Lords, are the Government aware of a study by the Dutch Government which links obesity with exercise-in particular, walking or cycling-in inverse proportion? Given that the same study says that we are the most obese country in Europe, will he encourage cycling to be taken up by more children and persuade the Department for Transport to take this a bit more seriously by get moving in encouraging more children to cycle to and from school and for leisure?
My Lords, we have already heard mention of the importance of the proper labelling of foods. Could that labelling be such that even the youngest child, perhaps with type 1 diabetes, would be able to understand it without having to go into some mathematical equation to decide exactly what is good for him to eat?
My Lords, my noble friend may know that a UK-wide consultation on front-of-pack labelling was held last year. We published a formal response to it at the end of January. The responses identified a number of issues which we need to consider further and officials are working on those. However, my noble friend is absolutely right that not just the calorie content but the clarity of the messages around calories need to be clear not only to adults but to children.
Does the noble Earl know that drinking alcohol is a big factor in introducing sugar into the body? The drinks industry is totally exempt from any requirement to show the calorific effect of alcohol, or indeed its energy factors. Is the Minister happy that the partners in the responsibility deal within the drinks industry are taking no action on that issue, or is he prepared to say that the Government will push through the responsibility deal to try to bring about some change?
My Lords, our alcohol strategy includes a commitment for the Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network to seek to make further progress on including energy information as part of the responsibility deal alcohol-labelling pledge. We have already secured provisions in recent EU labelling legislation that will enable companies to provide this information on a voluntary basis. The pledge on improving information for consumers in the off-trade area already includes a commitment to raise awareness of the energy content of alcoholic drinks, and we will continue along those lines.