A COUPLE of weekends ago I was persuaded to take my children to Five Guys, a trendy burger emporium which recently has reached our hood, on the way to the cinema. As a result, I spent all of the adverts and most of the previews before The Martian moaning about pester power and the fact I’d succumbed to it. Fifty pounds is a lot to spend on eating in a fast-food joint with all the sophistication of McDonald’s, even if the burgers are tastier and the potatoes’ field of origin is posted on the wall.
By far the most offensive aspect of Five Guys, however, is the fizzy drinks counter. Not only can children mix their sodas as if they’re Professor Snape in potions class – and if you’ve ever stood behind one making sure they’ve got equal portions of 13 flavours in one giant cup, you’ll understand how irritating that is – but they can refill them for free as often as they like. I suspect Jamie Oliver could tell you exactly how many spoonfuls of sugar they serve up with every fresh tug on the black lever, but even I know that, in a world of spiralling obesity, it’s way too many.
Sugar is Oliver’s latest fixation. For months now, he’s been trying to draw attention to how much we unwittingly consume, with fizzy drinks the worst offenders. Once upon a time, a can of ginger was a once-a-week treat, but now you can buy them for 39p a go at most corner shops. School kids guzzle them on the way home unbeknownst to their parents, unless they concertina up the evidence and put it in their jacket pockets (which plays havoc with the washing machine).
There have been many studies outlining the deleterious effects of the over-consumption of soft drinks, which has been linked to heart disease, Alzheimer’s and several different kinds of cancers. Some scientists believe they also contribute to early puberty, premature births and aggression. And, of course, they make us fat. All this, despite having virtually no nutritional value. But perhaps the scariest studies relate to diabetes, which has increased by 60 per cent in the UK in the past 10 years. Researchers from Cambridge University have said they believe there could be a link between fizzy drinks and Type 2 diabetes, and the government’s scientific advisory committee on nutrition has called for a cut in recommended added sugar intake from 10 per cent to 5 per cent of a person’s diet (average consumption is now 12-15 per cent).
Oliver is demanding action: he wants a crackdown on advertising, promotions and sponsorship and the introduction of better labelling. But most of all – and this is what is causing the fuss – he has called for a 20p per litre levy to be imposed on all fizzy drinks (about 7p a can), with the money raised ploughed into preventative health and education strategies.
Such taxes are controversial. Some believe they are regressive and have a disproportionate impact on the poor; and of course, they are unpopular with the food and drinks industry which is worried about profits and has done its best to present Oliver as an uppity bovver boy who has got too big for his boots.
The government is opposed to a sugar tax. David Cameron cites the impact on “struggling families”, but we can assume this is disingenuous (or he might have reconsidered cutting tax credits). So it must have more to do with upsetting corporate giants, such as Mars, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and major supermarkets, all of whom were invited to Downing Street last year. Last week, however, it emerged that a report by Public Health England (the government’s own advisory group) backed Oliver.
Cameron made up his mind on the levy without reading the report, which his health secretary Jeremy Hunt sat on, and which still hasn’t been published, presumably in the hopes the debate would blow over. But he had reckoned without the tenacity of Mr Bombastic. If there’s one thing Oliver knows – other than how to make a decent spaghetti alla puttanesca – it’s how to grab and keep hold of the limelight. In the summer, when he felt he was being ignored, he imposed a 10p levy on fizzy drinks served in his own restaurants (and reported a reduction in consumption). Then he made a C4 documentary, Sugar Rush, in which he filmed a six-year-old having six of his teeth removed. Last week, he put his case before the Health Select Committee in Westminster.
All the evidence suggests a sugar tax would work. In Mexico, where a 4p per litre sugary drinks tax was introduced two years ago, there has been a 6 per cent fall in consumption. In France, a similar tax in 2012 has produced a 3 per cent drop in consumption. It’s a no-brainer, really. And if it hits the poor the hardest, then the health benefits they stand to reap from its introduction are also greater.
Oliver is a thorn in the side of corporate interests; Ian Wright, head of the Food and Drink Federation, has compared him to one of the Mitchell brothers, the EastEnders twins who menace all that stand in their way. But the industry needs to be bullied into taking responsibility for the pain it is inflicting.
Oliver may be “narcissistic”, “self-inflated” and “jumped up”; he may make millions from flogging his cook books, but at least he is profiting from improving health as opposed to damaging it. At least he cares about the nation’s diet. Cameron can keep trying to swat him away like a persistent fly, but as pressure mounts, it seems the prime minister will prove no match for Oliver’s energy, zeal and hunger for social change. «