Move over tobacco, alcohol and fat, there’s a new villain in town: sugar. Cancer Research UK is warning that Scotland is hurtling towards an epidemic of increased cancer risk due to Scots’ love of sweet treats.
It does feel as though sugar has become the fashionable target for those whose task it is to improve the nation’s health. There has to be a worry here that such warnings will create “health message fatigue” in a large number of people who will believe that they are being told to cut down on too many things at once, and will therefore give up on all serious efforts.
Has the message moved to sugar because we have cracked the other major health threats? Not so much. The number of Scots who smoke has gone down from 31 per cent of adults in 2003 to 21 per cent in 2015. That is still one in five. Deaths from lung cancer have fallen from 2005 to 20015, -22.9 per cent for men but only -2.3 per cent for women. The incidence of lung cancer among men dropped by 13.9 per cent between 2004 and 2014, but actually increased by 10.7 per cent among women. The Scottish Government says that tobacco use is associated with more than 10,000 deaths and around 128,000 hospital admissions every year.
And those statistics come after a veritable barrage of legislation over more than a decade in Scotland. In March 2006, the Scottish Government banned smoking indoors in public places, it raised the age of sale for tobacco from 16 to 18 in 2007, brought in a tobacco retail register in 2011, banned sales from vending machines in 2013, and in the same year brought in a tobacco display ban in shops. Last December a new law making it illegal to smoke in a car with anyone under the age of 18 came into force in Scotland. And this year new laws come into force introducing plain packaging.
Obviously it has to be a priority of the health service and government to drive down smoking, but those statistics show what a difficult fight is still being undertaken.
And the health threat from obesity has been known for a long time and there have been many education programmes and initiatives to try to get everyone eating more healthily with promotion of low-fat alternatives, and greater consumption of vegetables and fruit.
But even in the face of greater knowledge of the cancers in which obesity is a major factor, the condition is still increasing in Scotland, with around two-thirds (65 per cent) of adults in Scotland and more than one quarter (28 per cent) of children overweight or obese.
Perhaps there are lessons to be learnt here. Changing habits is hard and even legislation takes time and a lot of concentrated effort.
Perhaps when it comes to tackling sugar it would be best to aim efforts at the manufacturers of the fast foods and sugary snacks. Last year the UK government announced plans to introduce a levy on sugary drinks in April 2018.
This week AG Barr announced it is to halve the amount of sugar in its Irn-Bru. Seems the new law is already having the desired effect.