By Sibhekile Magagula

Childhood obesity, according to the World Health Organisation, is one of the most serious global public health challenges of the 21st century. With that given, it is very commendable that the government is well aware of this issue, as suggested by the efforts to try and tackle it by imposing a 20% tax on sugar.

This measure seems to be popular, having been backed by the House of Commons Health Committee and over 50% of the public. But can we really lie back confidently arms folded and say a 20% tax on sugar is the ultimate measure to curb childhood obesity?

It is a known fact that sugar is one of the major causes of an unhealthy weight, especially if taken in excess. The latest statistics show that in the UK, 25% of boys and 33% of girls between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese; and what’s worse, there’s little sign of this incident slowing. The immediate effects of this are felt by the government with billions in costs incurred due to obesity, so it is only right for the government to introduce measures to reduce childhood obesity. But a lot more than just imposing a tax on ‘the new tobacco’ can and must be done.

Obviously, sugar is not only the brown or white grainy substance stashed into packets or sacks. Food items containing sugar, such as fizzy drinks, chocolate and biscuits, currently provide nearly three times the amount of our daily calories than what is recommended by experts. Getting below the 5% level promoted by health organisations would reportedly save the NHS £500 million a year. A rebalancing is in place.

What this measure misses, however, is that unhealthy sweet foods are not the only cause of obesity. Starchy and fatty foods are also found to be another cause for extra weight – if taken in excess but not burnt off, of course. So, if we are taxing sugar as a measure to prevent obesity, then we should also tax the pizzas and the pies and the chips. Snacks such as crisps take precedence in children’s eating habits after all, with a third of children eating crisps everyday. The sugar tax would clearly have a limited effect on its own. So why do we seem to be oblivious to the other factors which influence childhood obesity?

A good weight is a balance between food and exercise. Along with trying to protect children from a high sugar diet, we should also remind them to exercise. Maybe we can’t help the fact that today’s generation is growing up in a very technological world that has made human effort quite redundant. But technology did not shut down gyms. It did not destroy sport fields. Children should be encouraged to exercise by giving them more chances to do so. I’d prefer the government to take this initiative whereby sport programmes are made a culture of the nation, well advocated for. But if taxing is the way to go about this, then the gadgets which prompt children to be stuck on the couch and avoid exercise should just as well be taxed.

We would be doing children great injustice if we hid from them the realities of obesity – such as that obesity might shorten one’s life by eight to fourteen years, according to various research. And by just taxing sugar, I feel this is exactly what is being done, sweeping the mess under the carpet. Raising sugar prices in order to fight childhood obesity is like the ball hitting the goalpost instead of the net. It’s an effort to the right direction.