World Health Organisation pushes for tax on sugary drinks

16 October 2016
Cans of fizzy drink

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

Policies that introduce at least a 20% increase in the retail price of sugary drinks would result in proportional reductions in consumption of sugary drinks, according to the report, “Fiscal policies for Diet and Prevention of Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs)”.

The report says that reduced consumption of sugary drinks means:

  • lower intake of “free sugars” and calories overall

  • improved nutrition

  • fewer people suffering from overweight, obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.

Free sugars include monosaccharides (such as glucose or fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) which are added to foods and drinks, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit juice concentrates.

The director of WHO’s Department for the Prevention of NCDs, Dr Douglas Bettcher, says obesity is on the rise globally and action is needed.

“Consumption of free sugars, including products like sugary drinks, is a major factor in the global increase of people suffering from obesity and diabetes. If governments tax products like sugary drinks, they can reduce suffering and save lives. They can also cut healthcare costs and increase revenues to invest in health services,” he says.

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 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.

The report recommends fiscal policies which target key foods and beverages.

The authors reviewed research into the effectiveness of fiscal policy interventions to improve diets and prevent NCDs and conclude:

  • Subsidies for fresh fruits and vegetables that reduce prices by 10–30% can increase fruit and vegetable consumption.
  • Taxation of certain foods and drinks, particularly those high in saturated fats, trans fat, free sugars and/or salt appears promising, with existing evidence clearly showing that increases in the prices of such products reduces their consumption.
  • Excise taxes, such as those used on tobacco products, that apply a set (specific) amount of tax on a given quantity or volume of the product, or particular ingredient, are likely to be more effective than sales or other taxes based on a percentage of the retail price.
  • Public support for such tax increases could be increased if the revenue they generate is earmarked for efforts to improve health systems, encourage healthier diets and increase physical activity.

A number of countries have taken fiscal measures to protect people from unhealthy products. These include Mexico, which has implemented an excise tax on non-alcoholic beverages with added sugar, and Hungary, which has imposed a tax on packaged products with high sugars, salt or caffeine levels.

Countries, such as the Philippines, South Africa and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have also announced intentions to implement taxes on sugary drinks.