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World Health Organization urges countries to raise taxes on sugary drinks

Says consumption of free sugars is major factor in global increase of people suffering from obesity and diabetes

Amounts of Sugar In Food - Glass of Soda, Cola

The U.N. health agency on Tuesday recommended that countries use tax policy to increase the price of sugary drinks like sodas, sport drinks and even 100% fruit juices as a way to fight obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.

The World Health Organization, in a statement timed for World Obesity Day, said that the prevalence of obesity worldwide more than doubled between 1980 and 2014, when nearly 40% of people globally were overweight.

In a 36-page report on fiscal policy and diet, WHO also cited “strong evidence” that subsidies to reduced prices for fresh fruits and vegetables can help improve diets. It said that tax policies that lead to a 20% increase in the retail prices of sugary drinks would result in a proportional reduction in consumption.

Drawing on lessons from campaigns to fight tobacco use, WHO says imposing or increasing taxes on sugary drinks could help lower consumption of sugars, bringing health benefits and more income for governments such as to pay for health services. The health agency has long recommended that people keep intake of sugar to less than 10% of their total energy needs.

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“Consumption of free sugars, including products like sugary drinks, is a major factor in the global increase of people suffering from obesity and diabetes,” said Dr. Douglas Bettcher, who heads WHO’s department for preventing non-communicable diseases. “If governments tax products like sugary drinks, they can reduce suffering and save lives.”

WHO officials say that the U.S. is no longer the leading consumer of sugar-sweetened beverages—Chile and Mexico are now in front. They also noted rapid increase in consumption like China and sub-Saharan Africa. At least three in five adolescents in countries like Chile, Argentina and Algeria consume soft drinks daily, compared to between 20% to 40% in the U.S. and much of Europe.

“Taxation policies can be a very important tool—just one tool among many—but a very important tool for the reduction of sugar-sweetened beverages,” said Dr. Francesco Branca, who heads WHO’s Department for Nutrition and Health. He pointed to “pioneering” efforts by Michael Bloomberg, during his time as mayor of New York, and other U.S. officials to reduce sugar consumption.

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The report was based on information collected in May last year, but WHO is coming forward with its recommendation on Tuesday because the evidence of the link between tax policy and reduced consumption coupled with health benefits have only recently emerged, said Temo Waqanivalu, co-ordinator of WHO’s department for the prevention of non-communicable diseases.

Waqanivalu said that “discussion is ongoing” with companies behind such beverages on efforts to reduce sugar consumption.

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