Boris Johnson’s pledge to halt “sin taxes” on salty, sugary and fatty foods has been immediately marked by confusion and a backlash among Tory MPs and health charities.
The favourite for the Conservative leadership has announced plans to halt the roll-out of so-called “sin taxes” until the conclusion of a “comprehensive review” into their effectiveness.
Mr Johnson, who is widely expected to succeed Theresa May as prime minister, cited a proposed extension of the current sugar tax to include sugary milk drinks as the basis for his policy announcement.
He said: “The recent proposal for a tax on milkshakes seems to me to clobber those who can least afford it.
“If we want people to lose weight and live healthier lifestyles, we should encourage people to walk, cycle and generally do more exercise.
“Rather than just taxing people more, we should look at how effective the so-called ‘sin taxes’ really are, and if they actually change behaviour.”
However, there was uncertainty over the Johnson campaign’s announcement after Sky News saw plans recently circulated to fellow cabinet ministers by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
In the document, Mr Hancock – a key supporter of Mr Johnson’s leadership bid – vowed to extend the sugar tax to milky drinks if the industry does not make progress, while it also proposed a ban on the sale of energy drinks to under-16s.
Further questions about Mr Johnson’s position were also raised when it emerged he personally introduced a levy on sugary soft drinks at City Hall in 2016 when he was London mayor.
At the time, Mr Johnson described tackling obesity as “one of the biggest” health challenges, adding: “I hope this initiative will allow us to raise awareness of the problem and encourage people to think about their diets.”
A few months earlier, in 2015, Mr Johnson told NHS leaders that “overwhelmingly the people who will be most affected by an obesity problem will be those on the lowest incomes”.
“That’s why I’m thinking about sugar taxes and whether London should be leading on that,” he added.
Asked about Mr Johnson’s apparent change of position on the issue, a campaign source said: “The point he’s making is that you need to look at the evidence for whether these taxes change behaviour.
“There are other ways to reduce obesity other than hitting people in the pocket, like education and being active.”
Robert Jenrick MP, a Treasury minister and Johnson ally, admitted to Sky News that the sugar tax “has had some positive benefits” since it came into force last year.
“About 50% of manufacturers have used it as a spur to reformulate their drinks to reduce the sugar content,” he said.
“But we want to think through, has that actually changed the amount of sugar people are consuming? And what is the impact upon lower earners?
“We want the tax system to work for people on the lower incomes.”
He added: “That relentless focus on living standards is going to be the focus of a Boris Johnson government.”
Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, who is supporting Mr Johnson’s rival Jeremy Hunt, stressed the sugar tax was announced in 2016 – and introduced in 2018 – on the basis of evidence.
“I’m fine if people want to review policies, I think that’s sensible,” she told Sky News. “But this was based on quite a bit of evidence.”
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson was sent a warning that, if he becomes prime minister, he will struggle to implement any of his proposed policies due to the Tories’ lack of majority in the House of Commons.
Former Conservative minister Nick Boles, who quit the party earlier this year, posted on Twitter: “I love reading about all the things that Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt is going to do when PM.
“Almost all of it would require a majority of MPs to vote for it. Scrap sugar tax – no chance. Cut income tax for top earners – dream on.”
There was also a revolt among some current Tory MPs against Mr Johnson’s announcement, with Steve Brine tweeting: “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.”
And Jackie Doyle-Price wrote: “Obesity is now biggest contributor to ill health. Using taxes to influence choice & nudge behaviour is good Conservative policy.
“Leadership is about more than playing to the gallery.”
Mr Brine later told Sky News the sugar tax have been a “remarkably successful piece of policy-making” and that it was “completely wrong” for Mr Johnson to criticise the impact of such levies on lower earners.
He said: “That’s not the point of the sugar tax.
“The sugar tax was paid by manufacturers and they could either then add that to the cost of their products or they could reformulate.
“And guess what they decided to do? They decided to do the right thing and they decided to reformulate.”
He also delivered a threat to rebel against any potential changes to the sugar tax, saying: “My message to him [Mr Johnson] and his team is: ‘I’ll see you in the House of Commons’.”
Mr Johnson’s announcement came on the same day Cancer Research UK warned obesity now causes more cases of four common cancers than smoking.
The charity’s chief executive Michelle Mitchell said: “Taxes on less healthy products do have a positive effect.
“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.”
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have seen some important successes since the publication of the 2016 childhood obesity plan, including over half of all drinks in scope of the soft drinks industry levy being reformulated – the equivalent of removing 45 million kg of sugar every year.
“Our policies on obesity and public health have always been by evidence and will continue to be in the future.”