According to a new WHO report, taxing sugary drinks can lower consumption which can then reduce incidences of obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. The report, titled “Fiscal Policies for Diet and Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs)”, after analyzing data came up with a suggestion that a 20% increase in taxation on retail prices of sugary drinks would result in less people buying them, which would prevent weight gain caused by sugary drinks. The report was released today.
Decreased buying of sugary drinks means lower consumption of “free sugars” and calories overall, which will in turn improve nutrition and reduced number of individuals suffering from related health issues such as weight gain, obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.
The term free sugars means monosaccharides such as glucose or fructose and disaccharides such as sucrose or refined sugar. They have small molecules, even smaller than polysaccharides, and are added to foods and drinks usually by the manufacturer, cook or consumer. They may also be added to sugars that are naturally found in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
According to Dr Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, “Nutritionally, people don’t need any sugar in their diet. WHO recommends that if people do consume free sugars, they keep their intake below 10% of their total energy needs, and reduce it to less than 5% for additional health benefits. This is equivalent to less than a single serving (at least 250 ml) of commonly consumed sugary drinks per day.”
According to WHO, in 2014, more than 1 in 3 or approximately 39% adults globally aged 18 years and older, were overweight. Global presence of obesity increased more than twofold over the two decades between 1980 and 2014, with 11% of men and 15% of women, totaling more than five hundred million adults, being labelled as obese.
Additionally, an estimated 42 million children aged under 5 years were overweight or obese in 2015, which was an increase of almost 25%, equaling about 11 million during the past 15 years. Almost half, 48% to be exact, of these children belonged to Asian countries and 25% to African countries.
The number of patients who have been diagnosed with diabetes has also increased steadily, from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014. In 2012, diabetes caused deaths of 1.5 million people worldwide.
According to Dr Douglas Bettcher, Director of WHO’s Department for the Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases, a major factor involved in the rise of global incidences of diabetes and obesity is free sugars, which are abundant in sugary drinks. He believes that by taxing products like sugary drinks, governments can reduce health problems and potentially save lives. It can also cut healthcare costs and increase revenues to invest in health services.
According to the new WHO report, national dietary surveys have shown that drinks and foods high in free sugars can be a major source of unhealthy calories in people’s diets, especially in the case of children, adolescents and young adults, since they are easily influenced by friends, and TV commercials to try them out.
The report also highlighted the fact that some groups, including people who are not financially well off and belong to poor backgrounds, young individuals and those who are not health conscious and commonly consume unhealthy foods and beverages, are most likely to respond to price changes in consumables and, therefore, are the ones most likely to stop purchasing these items and gain the most health benefits.
A similar move was carried out by the UK government after it faced much criticism on failure to reduce obesity.
The report further added that fiscal policies should target foods and beverages since there are plenty of other healthier options available for consumers.
The report presents outcomes of a mid-2015 meeting of global experts organized by WHO and a thorough analysis of 11 recent systematic reviews of the practicality and feasibility of fiscal policy measures for enhancing diets and preventing noncommunicable diseases.
The report came to the conclusion that that reducing prices of fruits and vegetables by 10 to 30%, via subsidized methods, can increase fruit and vegetable consumption.
The report further added that putting taxes on foods and drinks which are high in saturated fats, trans fat, free sugars and or salt has shown potential, with existing evidence clearly showing that increases in the prices of such products reduces their consumption.
Similar measures have already been taken to reduce cigarette smoking in an attempt to improve health and reduce instances of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. In this case, excise taxes, such as those used on tobacco products, that apply any amount of tax on a given quantity or volume of the product, or a particular component of the recipe such as an ingredient, are more likely to succeed than by putting sales or other taxes based on a percentage of the retail price.
The public would be more open to the idea of increasing taxes if it knew that it was for a good cause, meaning that if they knew the money would be used to improve health systems, encourage healthier diets and increase physical activity.
It is indeed a global effort as a number of countries other than US and UK have taken fiscal measures to protect people from unhealthy products. These include Mexico, which has put into motion an excise tax on non-alcoholic beverages with added sugar, and Hungary, which has started taxing packaged products that contain high levels of sugars, salt and caffeine.