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MLAs debate sugar tax - one in four children overweight

By Noel McAdam

Children in Northern Ireland as young as two are obese or overweight, the Health Minister has revealed.

The problem affects more than a quarter of children and young people here, Simon Hamilton warned.

Mr Hamilton said it was "worrying" as MLAs debated the introduction of a sugar tax to help combat obesity.

The Welsh Assembly has already backed the idea of a tax, drawing on the experiences from countries such as Mexico, France and Hungary where similar measures have been launched.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver backed Plaid Cymru's policy in Wales following a headline-grabbing meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron on the issue.

He said at the time: "The food and drinks lobby might try to present me as a TV chef who has got too big for his boots. But I'm basing my arguments on the evidence of numerous doctors and scientists".

In Northern Ireland, Mr Hamilton was opposed to bringing in a levy on sugary drinks but a Sinn Fein motion was backed by other parties.

Speaking in the Assembly, the Health Minister said: "60% of the adult population is overweight or obese.

"Even more worryingly, 28% of our children and young people, some as young as two years of age, are overweight or obese."

Health risks associated with sustained high levels of sugar intake were "particularly disturbing", he added. Current estimates of sugar intake in Northern Ireland show that the average intake among school-age children and teenagers is almost three times higher than the new maximum recommended level.

And that, Mr Hamilton added, is around twice the maximum recommended level in adults.

There is "a lack of consensus on the issue, with even dieticians from the British Dietetic Association urging caution that we should not become fixated on a tax or single out sugar, when a balanced diet is key," he argued.

The lack of any agreement means people may switch to other unhealthy food "and therefore we just displace the problem rather than resolving it," he said.

Sinn Fein's Maeve McLaughlin, chair of the Assembly's health committee, said there was a strong correlation between sugar consumption and health problems, dental decay and obesity.

"Some of the research that we looked at estimated that the direct health costs such as GP, inpatient and outpatient costs and prescriptions to deal with obesity in the North was £92m per year," she said.

Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson said Mr Hamilton and health officials had quite clearly decided that a public consultation on sugar-sweetened drinks is not necessary.

"I think that that is quite disappointing. However, given how little value many departments, not least health, now give to consultations, the outcome will be little changed," she said.

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