Obesity cover-up? Health Secretary accused of burying ‘sugar tax’ report

Jeremy Hunt. © Stefan Wermuth
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been accused by MPs of suppressing a scientific report on the use of a sugar tax in tackling the UK’s obesity epidemic.

The Commons Health Select Committee has questioned whether ministers opposed to the tax exercised political power to prevent the release of the review by Public Health England (PHE).

The agency carried out a review into the merits of higher taxes on sugar drinks and sweets, a move backed by health experts.

The report was originally due to be published last July, but has been held back for use in “ongoing policy development” and would be made public later this year.

Health Select Committee head Dr Sarah Wollaston wrote to Hunt last month to reveal the findings ahead of an inquiry into childhood obesity which starts on Tuesday.

In keeping with the government’s stated policy of increasing transparency within the NHS and medical research, I believe that the department should lead by example and allow the public as well as members of parliament full and timely access to the report,” she said.

But Hunt and PHE Chief Executive Duncan Selbie refused to publish the report, according to letters seen by the Daily Telegraph.

Incensed, Wollaston then wrote to Selbie to express her “deep concern” and urge him to consider his duties to the public.

The secretary of state’s disinclination either to publish the evidence, or to make it available to the committee, should not prevent PHE from responding positively to our request, which I make through this letter, for you to do so.

I do not believe that the petitioners, or the wider public, will understand how the committee can complete its consideration of this issue if the review of the evidence, paid for with public money and for the benefit of the nation’s children, is not made available.

Delayed publication is as harmful as non-publication if this means that the public and health professionals wishing to influence the content of the obesity strategy do not have access to the data before the ink is dry on the obesity strategy.

Wollaston added she did not know whether the report’s findings support a sugar tax, but said she was “suspicious” about why they were being held back.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, she called the minister’s actions “outrageous” and insisted she would “not back down.”

The controversy follows the publication of an investigation by The Times, which on Friday revealed that Coca-Cola has spent millions of pounds in the UK funding research institutes and scientists who cast doubt on the link between sugary drinks and obesity.

Coca-Cola insists it relies on scientific research to make decisions about its products and ingredients.