We all know now that smoking kills, but could sugar be the new cigarettes when it comes to Public Health Enemy No. 1?

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New data from a study by Public Health England suggests that obesity has overtaken smoking-related diseases as the leading cause of death in Britain. Whereas smoking causes 10.7% of illness, poor diet now accounts for 10.8%.

The strain isn’t only on our waistlines: the report highlights that 40% of NHS resources are spent on treating illnesses stemming from lifestyle factors, including obesity. Experts such as Simon Stevens, Head of the NHS, have been swift to point the finger at Britain’s “junk food diets.” So is it our craving for a McDonald’s rather than a Malboro that is making us sick?

Professor Kevin Fenton, PHE director of Health and Wellbeing, claims that “as a nation we are eating far too many fats and far too much sugar.” Of course, we know that a diet that includes ‘good’ fats can actually be beneficial for our health, so don’t bin your butter just yet. While dire warnings to cut out the trans fat nasties that make fast food so tasty (and addictive) have been on the lips of health officials for years, it’s sugar that has until recently been the wolf in sweet clothing.

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Now that sugar detoxes have become the new quitting smoking, and celebrity chefs and cookbook writers have been piling on the sugar-free bandwagon, perhaps the Mary Poppins remake will prescribe a spoonful of coconut oil instead of sugar. But are artfully shot recipes and Instagrams of #AvocadoOnToast enough to stop the NHS buckling under the weight of the obesity crisis?

Pressure is mounting on the government to take the lead and implement taxes on sugar, while subsidising fresh fruit and veg. In July, the British Medical Association called on Parliament to introduce a 20% tax on sugary drinks, but their plea fell on deaf ears.

Professor John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, has also urged the government to take action “to make people’s social environments healthier.”

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Getting the government to renounce sweet treats for good might be easier said than done. Britain built its Empire on the bitter history of the sugar trade, and its legacy is far-reaching. Earlier this year, the British Medical Journal revealed that the same scientific research teams meant to be investigating the impact of sugar on public health are funded by saccharine industry giants such as Coca-Cola.

Without getting too tinfoil hat about a sugar-spun web of conspiracy, it’s safe to say that taking our health and wellbeing back into our own hands is the way forward. It’s time to ditch sneakily sweetened drinks and snacks and reclaim our tastebuds. Can someone please invent a vape version of Dairy Milk?

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