Boris Johnson looked to be slimming down his war on ‘sin taxes’ today after a massive backlash from health experts.
The Tory leadership front runner launched an attack on measures such as the flagship sugar tax on fizzy drinks overnight – insisting such levies will be put under review if he reaches No10.
He also vowed to freeze new taxes on foods which are high in salt, fat or sugar – arguing those who want to lose weight should just exercise more.
But the pledge – which came as it emerged obesity is now a bigger cause of many cancers than smoking – sparked fury from health campaigners who accused Mr Johnson of ‘turning back the clock’.
Tory former health minister Steve Brine branded it ‘dog whistle politics’ while Downing Street said the sugar tax was reducing consumption by 45million kilograms a year.
Others pointed out that Mr Johnson had himself introduced a sugar tax in City Hall when he was Mayor of London.
Speaking during a campaign visit in Berkshire today, Mr Johnson appeared to soften his language – joking about his own weight issues as he stressed that obesity was the ‘number one public health challenge’ and saying he would be guided by ‘evidence’.
The only policy he singled out for condemnation was a ‘milkshake tax’ mooted by his own ally Matt Hancock. Aides have also made clear that tobacco and alcohol taxes will not be reviewed.
Boris Johnson (pictured on a visit to the Thames Valley Police training centre in Reading today) has promised to review the government’s flagship sugar tax on fizzy drinks if he reaches No10, and insisted it will not be extended to milkshakes
Mr Johnson seemed to be enjoying himself posing for a slew of selfies with police recruits on the visit today
A levy on soft drinks was introduced by the government in April 2018 in an attempt to cut the amount of sugar they contain
Mr Johnson said: ‘Obesity is a huge public health challenge, probably now our number one public health challenge.
‘It costs the NHS absolutely billions, we have got to deal with obesity but we have got to do it in a way that is evidence based and what I want to see is evidence, actually evidence that new taxes on this or that item of food, taxes which fall disproportionately on poorer families, actually stop people from being so fat.
‘You have got to make sure that it is discouraging people from consuming what they are doing, or whether it is just a bit of a gesture.
‘Now everybody struggles with their weight, me no less than anybody else, we all know what the issues are.
Boris imposed ‘sugar tax’ in CIty Hall as Mayor of London
Boris Johnson imposed a ‘sugar tax’ on drinks at City Hall when he was mayor of London.
The Tory leadership front runner put a 10p charge on all added-sugar drinks sold in the building in 2016.
The proceeds went to health campaigns.
Mr Johnson said at the time that tackling obesity was ‘one of the biggest’ health challenges for politicians.
‘I hope this initiative will allow us to raise awareness of the problem and encourage people to think about their diets,’ he said.
‘But my question is, is it really sensible to put a new tax on milkshakes which will be paid disproportionately by poorer families when the evidence seems to be at the moment ambiguous about whether those taxes actually reduce consumption and help people with their obesity?’
A levy on soft drinks was introduced in April 2018 in an attempt to cut the amount of sugar they contain.
Aides said Mr Johnson’s policy will not apply to other sin taxes such as those on cigarettes and alcohol.
Summarising his approach one source said: ‘Is it better for you to go for a run and have a coke or sit in an armchair and have a diet coke?’
But the Royal Society for Public Health replied to Mr Johnson’s comments about exercise by saying: ‘You cannot outrun a bad diet.’
Cancer Research UK chief executive Michelle Mitchell stressed the significance of the taxes and praised their success in lowering smoking rates and removing sugar from diets.
‘Taxes on less healthy products do have a positive effect,’ she said.
‘They have been highly effective in bringing down smoking rates to record lows, including within deprived communities, and the Treasury’s own analysis showed the tax on sugary drinks took 90 million kg of sugar out of the nation’s diet on day one.
‘Physical activity is one way to lose weight but the Government also has a big role to play if we are to significantly reduce obesity levels.’
The Obesity Health Alliance’s Caroline Cerny said voluntary programmes for the food industry to cut sugar ‘have not had the same success’ as the tax.
‘The levy is supported by the public and welcomed by a wide range of health experts and is vitally needed as part of a package of measures to help create a healthier environment for everyone,’ she said.
Mr Brine posted on Twitter: ‘As the Public Health Minister who oversaw the introduction of the sugary drinks levy, I totally despair at this.
Mr Johnson, pictured being given a self-defence lesson at the police training centre today, admitted that he has struggled with his weight
Mr Johnson joked around wielding a pair of boltcutters during his visit in Berkshire today
Mr Hunt, pictured addressing party members in Alton, Hampshire today, implemented the sugar tax as health secretary
Mr Hunt has been running a high-octane campaign as he tries to overhaul Mr Johnson’s advantage among Tory members
‘Transparent dog whistle politics dressed up as something thinking. It is the exact opposite.’
Allies of Jeremy Hunt said the policy exposed divisions in Mr Johnson’s camp.
What happens now?Tory leadership rivals fight to win over the party faithful
The Tory leadership rivals have been setting out their stall to the 160,000 Conservative members who will decide who enters No10.
Ballot papers are being sent out by post at the end of this week.
The new leader is due to be announced on July 23, and will take over from Theresa May as PM later that week.
Here is the schedule for hustings events and TV debates:
July 4: Yorkshire & Humber
July 5: North East
July 5: Scotland
July 6: East Midlands
July 6: Wales
July 9: ITV debate
July 11: South East
July 12: Gloucestershire
July 13 Cambridgeshire
July 13: Essex
July 16: BBC debate
July 17: London
Mr Hancock – a backer of Mr Johnson – recently signed off extending the sugar tax to milkshakes, and a ban on sales of energy drinks to children.
He is not believed to have been warned that the announcement was coming overnight.
But Mr Hancock defended the review today, saying Mr Johnson was a ‘very good example’ of using exercise to shift weight.
‘I strongly support having an evidence-based review into how these taxes are working,’ he told Sky News. ‘Of course there’s the tax, but there’s more ways we can make sure that we tackle obesity.
‘And Boris himself is a great example of how we can all get fit and svelte without the need of the nanny state by getting on and doing more exercise and cycling to work.’
Mr Johnson has discussed his fight for fitness, writing in December that he had found out he was ‘carting around 16-and-a-half stone’ during a doctor’s visit. But he has since lost weight, saying he shifted ’12 pounds in two weeks’.
‘I have not only laid off the Mars Bars; I have axed the cheese,’ he wrote in the Spectator magazine.
‘I breakfast like some Georgian hermit on porridge with a luxury sprinkling of nuts. At drinks parties I guzzle water and marvel at the Pinteresque slowness with which we come to the point.’
He is also regularly photographed out running. ‘Is it working? You bet it is,’ Mr Johnson concluded.
Some attribute the former foreign secretary’s slimming and tidier haircut to the guidance of Carrie Symonds, Mr Johnson’s partner, who previously worked as the Tories’ communication director.
Mr Johnson was assailed by camera-wielding recruits as he toured the police training base
The Tory front runner was enjoying himself as he toured the police training base in Reading this morning
But the Royal Society for Public Health argued you ‘cannot outrun a bad diet’ and said it was wrong to put the onus on individuals to change their habits (file photo)
What is the sugar tax and has it been working?
From April 2018, soft drinks companies have been required to pay a levy on drinks with added sugar.
If a drink contains between 5g and 8g of sugar per 100ml the tax is 18p per litre, whereas if a drink has more than 8g of sugar per 100ml, the tax is 24p.
Fruit juices and milk are not included in the tax.
The move aims to help tackle childhood obesity. Sugar-sweetened soft drinks are now the single biggest source of dietary sugar for children and teenagers.
Some drinks, including Fanta, Lucozade, Sprite, Dr Pepper and Vimto, had their recipes changed so they contained less than 5g of sugar and the price did not need to be put up.
However, others like Coca Cola and Pepsi refused to reduce the amount of sugar and, as a result, the price of them increased.
A 330ml can of Coke or Pepsi went up by 8p, as they contain seven teaspoonfuls of sugar.
A 500ml bottle increased by 12p, while a two-litre bottle was an extra 48p
Red Bull cans went up by 6p.
The Government has predicted the levy will raise £240million a year, which will be spent on sports clubs and breakfast clubs in schools.
The sugar tax raised £153.8million in the first six months after it was introduced, between April and October 2018.