The NHS is set to take a lead on public health and ban or impose a tax on sugary drinks sold in hospitals.
Chief executive Simon Stevens has stated his desire to set a healthy example for the rest of society.
Trials are planned for four NHS hospitals, with the intention of floating the policy.
England would be the first country in the world to take such action, should the plan go ahead.
The consultation will runs until 18th January next year.
Drinks affected by the potential initiative would be any with added sugar, including fruit juices, sweetened milk-based drinks and sweetened coffees.
The soft drinks industry has naturally responded strongly to this suggestion.
Gavin Partington, of the British Soft Drinks Association, commented that “it’s hard to see how a ban on soft drinks can be justified given that the sector has led the way in reducing consumers’ sugar intake”.
It is believed that a 20% tax on sugary drinks would raies int the region of £30 million annually.
The authorities state that revenue would then be reinveted in patient charities and “health and wellbeing programmes” to help keep the NHS’s 1.3 million employees fit.
During recent trials, one hospital that banned sugary drinks found the overall total number of drinks sold did not decrease, meaning vendors were financially unaffected.
Stevens suggested that the move could have a positive impact on diabetes and the dental health of children.
“Confronted by rising obesity, type 2 diabetes and child dental decay, it’s time for the NHS to practise what we preach. By ploughing the proceeds of any vendor fees back into staff health and patient charities these proposals are a genuine win-win opportunity to both improve health and cut future illness cost burdens for the NHS.”
Health charities welcomed the idea, unlike the soft drinks industry.
The aforementioned Partington continued with his arguments against the move.
“Sugar intake is down by over 17% since 2012. In 2015 we also became the only category to set a calorie reduction target of 20% by 2020. Given that the government is looking to introduce a soft drinks tax in 2018 it seems slightly odd that another public body wishes to duplicate this process.”
A sugar tax was previously repealed in Denmark after it failed to have a significantly positive impact.
The Danish government estimated that it was losing €38.9 million in VAT annually from illegal soft drink sales.
After 15 months the tax was abandoned, following surveys which suggested that only 7% of Danes had reduced their fat intake.
The tax was, however, blamed for 1,300 lost jobs as Danish shoppers crossed to Germany or Sweden.
A survey carried out by The Observer newspaper suggests that hospitals in the NHS are sending out a mixed message by stocking vending machines with unhealthy food and drinks.
According to the survey of hospital trusts in England, all of the 76 trusts who responded sold confectionary and salty snacks, while as many as half failed to offer plain dried or fresh fruit.
And of the 60 trusts that provided information related to soft drinks, only two – the Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust and the Bolton NHS Foundation Trust – have restricted the availability of fizzy drinks to diet versions.
It should be said in mitigation that diet fizzy drinks have come under as much criticism as their full sugar equivalents, with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame being linked with a wide variety of health problems.
Whether diet fizzy drinks would actually be healthier than full sugar variants is debatable. What could be said is that water or some form of pure fruit juice would be a considerably superior option to any form of soda.
Hospitals have come under pressure to improve the quality of food on offer to patients and staff, as it has become increasingly clear that the nutritional value of food served in hospitals is sometimes negligible.
Only last month, Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, called on hospitals to improve the quality of food being offered, and to serve healthy options in restaurants, cafes and vending machines.
The health regulator Nice has already advised that only 20 per cent of vending machine drinks should be sweetened by significant amounts of sugar.
Additionally, sweetened drinks should be sold in site is no greater than 330ml.
But Freedom of information requests issued by The Guardian indicate that most of us in the UK are in fact ignoring these regulations.
For example, vending machines at the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust offer nineteen different varieties of sugary soft drinks or juice drinks and two flavoured milk-shake drinks.
Speaking on behalf of the National Obesity Forum, Tam Fry stated that hospitals needed to more reflect an ethos of healthy eating.
“They’re stoking up business for themselves; particularly with obesity and diabetes, you don’t want to see more of them [patients]; you want to see fewer. One of the ways to see more is to ply them with sugary drinks,” Fry opined.
Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at Oxford, suggested that pricing is also an issue.
“The problem is that the choice is biased in favour of the less healthy option by price, availability and portion size. Even the manufacturers say that if you take those bottles of sugary drinks it’s not one serving, it’s two – so why have we got 500ml bottles in vending machines, which are supposed to be about single-unit purchases?”
In May, 2014, it was reported that the UK is one of the most obese countries in Europe.
The UK has higher levels of obesity and overweight people than anywhere in western Europe except for Iceland and Malta according to the Global Burden of Disease study.