WHO urges global action to curtail consumption and health impacts of sugary drinks

27 October 2016 Policy

Taxing sugary drinks can lower consumption and reduce obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay, says a new WHO report.

Fiscal policies that lead to at least a 20% increase in the retail price of sugary drinks would result in proportional reductions in consumption of such products, according to the report titled ‘Fiscal policies for Diet and Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs)’.

Reduced consumption of sugary drinks means lower intake of ‘free sugars’  and calories overall, improved nutrition and fewer people suffering from overweight, obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.

According to the new WHO report, national dietary surveys indicate that drinks and foods high in free sugars can be a major source of unnecessary calories in people’s diets, particularly in the case of children, adolescents and young adults.

It also points out that some groups, including people living on low incomes, young people and those who frequently consume unhealthy foods and beverages, are most responsive to changes in prices of drinks and foods and, therefore, gain the highest health benefits.

Fiscal policies should target foods and beverages for which healthier alternatives are available, the report adds.

The report presents outcomes of a mid-2015 meeting of global experts convened by WHO and an investigation of 11 recent systematic reviews of the effectiveness of fiscal policy interventions for improving diets and preventing NCDs and a technical meeting of global experts.

Fiscal policies for Diet and Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs)

German study
The WHO report is line with the findings of the Discovery! Manuscript titled ‘Effects of Taxing Sugar-sweetened Beverages on Caries and Treatment Costs’ by lead author Falk Schwendicke, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Germany.

In this study, Schwendicke and colleagues modeled the implementation of a 20 percent of sugar-sweetened beverages (SBBs) sales tax in a German population and concluded that taxation reduced caries increment and treatment costs especially in younger individuals and those with low income. If such a tax rate of 20 percent was implemented, this could help alleviate the rates in obesity, dental caries increments and perhaps other comorbidities, such as diabetes.

This manuscript, published early October in the OnlineFirst portion of the Journal of Dental Research (JDR), provides the first economic evaluation of the effect of taxation on caries experience and treatment costs.

Industry responds
Needless to say, the WHO report and policy measures in countries such as Mexico and the UK have sent the food and beverage lobby into overdrive. The International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA) has developed a video entitled ‘The Truth About Beverage Taxes’, which, it claims, shows the true cost of a tax on consumers and small business people, and how the tax does not work as proponents say it will.

The UNESDA, which represents the European soft drinks industry (comprising still drinks, cordials, dilutables, carbonates, fruit drinks, energy drinks, iced teas and coffees, squashes and sports drinks) has attacked the measures as impractical - ‘Why food and drink taxes don’t work’ - and, by implication, economically damaging – 'The European soft drinks industry: rooted in the European economy'.

In January 2016, the UK-based Institute for Economic Affairs issued the seven-page ‘Sugar taxes: a briefing’.