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Coke GlassAccording to a report by the BBC, leading medical bodies are calling for a 20p-per-litre levy on soft drinks to be included in this year’s Budget. More than 60 organisations, including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, are backing the recommendation by food and farming charity Sustain. They say it would raise £1bn a year in duty to fund free fruit and meals in schools to improve children’s health.

Unsurprisingly, the soft drinks industry is reported as saying raising taxation is unnecessary. The British Soft Drink Association (BSDA) says companies are already playing their part in the fight against obesity, with the BSDA’s director general Gavin Partington quoted as saying 61% of soft drinks “now contain no added sugar and we have seen soft drinks companies lead the way in committing to further, voluntary action as part of the government’s Responsibility Deal calorie-reduction pledge.”

He goes on to say that 10p from every 60p can of drink already goes to the government in tax (note this is the standard VAT applied to many goods and services) and that “Putting up taxes even further will put pressure on people’s purses at a time when they can ill afford it.”

I think it is interesting to contrast this with the recent warning that “child poverty and obesity are going to get worse in the coming years“, which came after public health minister Anna Soubry said people can pick out children from poor families because they tend to be fat. Miss Soubry said when she was at school pupils from deprived backgrounds tended to be “skinny runts”, but cheap and easily available junk food meant the situation had reversed.

In the last year I have posted about a number of news articles and study on “soft” fizzy drinks. These include discoveries of alcohol in Coca-Cola and Pepsi and also how ingredients that have been linked to cancer have been removed from these drinks in the US, yet are still used in other countries across the world, how women who treat themselves to a fizzy drink every day may be increasing their risk of a life-threatening stroke and that drinking fizzy and sugary drinks for just a month alters body chemistry, making it more difficult to lose weight.

‘Having seen all the medical evidence, I don’t touch soft drinks now,’ says Dr Hans-Peter Kubis, a biological scientist and expert in exercise nutrition who led the research. ’I think drinks with added sugar are, frankly, evil.

I know that some of what you are reading hear may sound alarmist, but new medical studies have produced worrying results. Even moderate consumption — a can a day, or just two a week — may alter our metabolism so that we pile on weight and fizzy drinks also appear to increase the risk of heart disease, liver failure and hypertension!

One of the studies I referred to above suggested fizzy drinks can cause weight gain and long-term health problems if drunk every day for as little as a month. The research, by Bangor University and published in the European Journal Of Nutrition, reported that soft drinks actually alter metabolism, so that our muscles use sugar for energy instead of burning fat. It seems that exposure to liquid sugar causes genes in our muscles to change their behaviour, perhaps permanently. Not only do we pile on weight, but our metabolism becomes less efficient and less able to cope with rises in blood sugar, say the researchers. This, in turn, increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.

In children, soft drinks have been linked to addict-like cravings, as well as twisting kids’ appetites so they hunger for junk food. Already, countries such as Denmark and France are introducing soft-drink taxes to cut consumption. In the U.S., around 100 medical and consumer organisations are now calling on the Surgeon-General to investigate the health effects of soda and other sugary drinks.

A 330-millilitres (half-pint) sugary drink typically provides 35g (0.17oz), or nine lumps of sugar

In the BBC’s article, Sustain says the tax is a simple measure that would help save lives by reducing sugar in our diets and raising money to protect children’s health. It says the UK consumes more than 5,727 million litres of sugary soft drinks a year. Adding a 20p tax for every litre sold would raise more than £1.1bn.

Mike Rayner, of the department of public health at Oxford University and chairman of Sustain, said: “Just as we use fiscal measures to discourage drinking and smoking and help prevent people from dying early, there is now lots of evidence that the same approach would work for food. This modest proposal goes some way towards making the price of food reflect its true costs to society. Our obesity epidemic causes debilitating illness, life threatening diseases and misery for millions of people. It is high time government did something effective about this problem.”

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “Our primary responsibility is to help the nation to be healthier. We keep all international evidence under review. But we believe the voluntary action we have put in place is delivering results.”

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham disagrees and says it is clear that a voluntary approach is not working.

He said: “Labour is consulting on whether new limits on sugar, salt and fat content in food aimed at children would be a better way forward. This would help parents protect their children from foods which contain excessive levels of sugar, salt and fat in a way that a tax wouldn’t.”

Are “Diet” or “Sugar Free” soft drinks the answer to our growing obesity epidemic and other health issues linked to “soft” fizzy drinks? Or, are we seeing the soft drinks industry’s version of low tar cigarettes?

Just last week a study blamed ‘Light’ cigarettes for a huge rise in cancer risk. Women smokers are nearly ten times more likely to die of lung cancer now than they were in the 1960s. Fifty years ago they had a 2.7 times greater chance of dying from the disease than those who never smoked but between 2000 and 2010 that rose to 25.7 times. In part, it is because women use lower-strength cigarettes which have to be inhaled harder to pull smoke deeper into the lungs. So have ‘Light’ cigarettes made smoking safer? Put simply, it appears the evidence says no!

So, what about the British Soft Drink Associations (BSDA) statement that 61% of soft drinks “now contain no added sugar”?

Well, over the past 10 years, the consumption of soft drinks containing added sugar has fallen by 9% while the incidence of obesity has increased by 15%. In my opinion this story sounds a bit too similar to the view that ‘Light’ cigarettes are safer!

2013 miles in 2013

Having completed a year without all alcohol in 2012, my self imposed challenge this year is to complete 2013 self powered miles by the end of 2013. My rules are quite simple:

  1. All miles must be completely self powered (no motors, sails, etc)
  2. I must be able to evidence all miles, either via GPS or with a picture of any static gym equipment

To complete my 2013 miles I will be running, cycling, rowing and who knows, I might even try a few other self powered methods along the way.

I need to average just over 5.5 miles (9 km) per day to hit my target. I ran just over 670 miles in 6 and a half months in 2012, so this is a big step up. It is not going to be easy, but hey, it wouldn’t be a challenge if it was!

As part of this challenge I am planning a few races and have already signed up for 2 half marathons in March, a full 26.2 miles marathon in May and a return trip to the Great South Run.

I will be doing this challenge in aid of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and so will keep my existing Just Giving page going for another year. I have been surprised since I started fundraising for the CF Trust just how many people are unaware of this disease and so I hope my efforts will not just raise money, but also awareness of the UK’s most most common life-threatening inherited disease.

To donate to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust please click here to visit my just giving page or donate by text – send AYWB55 and the amount to 70070. For example, texting “AYWB55 £5″ will donate £5.