POLITICIANS DON'T seem keen on a tax on sugary drinks, so the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group took matters into its own hands. CEO Simon Blagden suggests it won't be long before others follow their lead.
What prompted you to introduce a 10p charge on some sugary drinks?
Simon Blagden: At the heart of Jamie’s business is a food education charity. Jamie believes that one of the most important ways to help in the fight against obesity and diet-related disease is better food education. We need to educate kids and adults so that they are empowered to decide for themselves when they should eat healthy food and when it’s time for a treat. However, he also believes that we need levies or taxes alongside this, to discourage people – or at least make them think about – whether they should be consuming some products less regularly.
Sugary drinks are the start of this process and as a restaurant group we are absolutely behind introducing a levy and will be doing so across all of our UK restaurants from September 1st this year. The money raised will go to Sustain, which will use the funds to support children’s food education projects.
What drinks are covered by your “child health levy”?
SB: At the moment, our levy is on soft drinks with added sugar. We will not be taxing fruit juices as the ones we serve at Jamie’s Italian contain only natural sugars derived from the fruit, plus vitamin C and other minerals which changes the way those drinks are used by the human body. As diet drinks contain no added sugar we have also decided not to tax them for the time being.
The reason for us choosing to tax soft drinks with added sugar is that they pump your body full of sugar, contain no or very few nutrients and do not fill you up, which makes it very easy to consume too many calories and gain weight.
What were the risks or opportunities you identified?
SB: We firmly believe that the opportunities and positives associated with introducing a small levy far outweigh any risk. Customer satisfaction is always our primary aim at the restaurants, which is why we work on providing the best possible food and service to all of our guests. But we also feel we must take a lead when it comes to affecting public health. A levy on these drinks allows us to raise money to help give children the knowledge to make better food and drink choices, as well as send a message to take urgent action on the public health crisis.
How did your drinks suppliers react?
SB: We have thus far had no reaction. But public reaction has so far been overwhelmingly positive.
Why didn’t you just ban the drinks?
SB: We would never ban sugary drinks because we believe everyone should be able to make their own choice. Pretty much every anti-sugar campaigner agrees that the occasional treat is OK. The levy is being brought in to raise awareness of the effect of too much sugar in people’s diet, as well raise money for children’s food education and put pressure on the government to take action on the public health crisis.
Why isn’t the charge applied to sugary foods as well?
SB: No one is suggesting that we ban sugar or cakes or desserts or treats. Everyone loves a treat from time to time – even the most vocal anti-sugar campaigners. What Jamie is saying is that we need to urgently look at ways to reverse the global obesity crisis and the rise in preventable diet- related disease. One way to do this is to educate people to understand what food does to their bodies and how to cook more nutritious food so that a treat from time to time does no harm at all. The problems come when people are filling up on sugary foods and hydrating themselves with sugary drinks day after day.
Can you see other chains following your lead?
SB: We very much hope so. We are currently in the process of meeting other restaurant groups to explain what we are doing and why. We have high hopes that some will choose to join us and the reaction so far has been positive.
In tackling obesity, is it up to industry to take the lead rather than wait for government regulation?
SB: Obesity and diet-related disease cost the NHS billions every year, not to mention the tens of thousands of unnecessary early deaths, many of which could be prevented if people had the knowledge to know what they’re eating and how it affects their bodies. Type-2 diabetes and other diet-related diseases are becoming far too common. Of course we are calling on the government for firm action, but as a restaurant group we believe that something has to be done now. This is our first step of a move in the right direction.