Sugar, tobacco and alcohol taxes are being underused, say leading international experts
In a recently published commentary article in The Lancet, an international group of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, the World Bank, as well as civil society leaders and other academics are calling for governments to adopt sugar, tobacco and alcohol taxes (STAX) to improve global health outcomes.
The article’s authors maintain that STAX can meaningfully reduce the consumption of sugar, tobacco and alcohol – all risk factors for major oral diseases and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) that disproportionately affect people with low socioeconomic status. To this end, the article emphasizes that “scaled-up country support is needed to accelerate and implement STAX as a cost-effective fiscal policy to contribute to the [United Nations] Sustainable Development Goals.”
The experts also report that despite strong opposition from the alcohol and food industries, STAX should be embraced as an indispensable policy tool for governments to improve public health. They cite compelling evidence from South Africa, Thailand and the Philippines where tobacco and alcohol taxes have significantly improved health outcomes for individuals and communities. Increasing revenues from STAX have also empowered more countries to fund public health initiatives and programmes.
The consensus among the world’s leading public health experts is that more countries should be taxing sugar alongside alcohol and tobacco.
To date, only 28 countries have introduced a sugar tax. The number of young people globally aged 5–19 years who are overweight and/or obese has dramatically increased from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016, with sugar consumption as a major contributor. Surging levels of global sugar consumption thus represents a significant oral health and NCD challenge. Without targeted investment in widespread preventative interventions the burden of oral diseases and other NCDs will continue to accelerate unabated.
The article highlights Mexico as a prime example of a country where a sugar tax successfully reduced the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages: a sugar tax was introduced in 2014 in response to the country’s rapidly burgeoning obesity rates. The tax reduced sugar-sweetened beverage sales by 5% in the first year with a further 10% reduction in the second year. Devex, in partnership with the NCD Alliance, has released a video as part of its #TakingthePulse against NCDs campaign to explain the lessons that other countries can learn from Mexico’s experience.
The ongoing debate about taxing sugar consumption comes at a critical juncture as countries prepare for the United Nations High-Level Meeting on NCDs (UN HLM on NCDs) on 27 September. In particular, there is an urgent need for governments to adopt a more holistic approach to taxation including sugar-sweetened beverages. WHO’s evidence-based guidance and reports, including the NCD Best Buys and the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, contends that taxation on sugar sweetened beverages is as an essential part of interventions that can help reduce obesity and NCDs.
At this year’s FDI World Dental Congress in Buenos Aires ahead of the UN HLM on NCDs, FDI, NCD Alliance and the WHO will lead a joint session on sugar. The session, entitled Curbing the Sugar Rush: Tackling oral diseases and other NCDs through a unified approach, will inform attendees about strategies to reduce sugar consumption through evidence-based and cost-effective interventions. The session will discuss potential policy measures include imposing higher taxation on sugar-rich foods and beverages, adopting transparent food and nutrition labelling and implementing public health education campaigns.