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.
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.
‘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.
‘Transparent dog whistle politics dressed up as something thinking. It is the exact opposite.’
Heaping further pressure on Mr Johnson, a YouGov poll found he was out of line with the public’s views.
In a snap survey some 55 per cent said they approved of government putting higher taxes on food and drinks that are high in fat, sugar and salt, as a way of combating obesity.
Just 37 per cent said it was wrong.
Allies of Jeremy Hunt said the policy exposed divisions in Mr Johnson’s camp.
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.
Downing Street pointed to figures showing the effectiveness of the sugar tax.
‘Over half of the drinks in the scope of the levy have been reformulated, that is the equivalent of removing the equivalent of 45 million kilograms of sugar every year,’ the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
Meanwhile, Theresa May has delivered a stark message to her successor today that No Deal is not in the ‘best interests’ of the UK.
The PM urged Mr Johnson or Mr Hunt to strike an agreement with Brussels that can win the backing of MPs.
Aides also made clear that Mrs May will not hesitate to speak out on Brexit from the backbenches.
The thinly-veiled warning from Mrs May came as she took questions from MPs in the Commons this afternoon.
Tory former minister Sir Edward Leigh asked the PM whether she would recommend her successor follow the mantra that ‘no-deal is better than a bad deal’.
Mrs May replied: ‘I have always believed that no-deal was better than a bad deal but I believed we negotiated a good deal.
‘The advice I would give to my successor is to act at all times in the best interests of this country.
‘I believe it’s in our best interests to be able to leave the European Union with a good deal but it is up to my successor to find a majority in this House to enable us to leave the European Union.’
The Tory leadership rivals have been competing to take the toughest line on Brexit, with Mr Johnson saying he will take the UK out of the EU by Halloween ‘come what may’.