WHO no longer recommends taxing sweetened beverages

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Noncommunicable Disease Committee is moving away from the two-year-old call by the UN agency to tax sweetened beverages in a new report on diseases such as cancer, obesity and diabetes that many experts consider “ostensibly soft”.

International health experts said the decision was particularly disconcerting, given the growing global obesity crisis and previous attempts by WHO to reduce sugar consumption.

In 2016, the UN Health Agency urged countries to tax sweetened beverages such as soft drinks and sports drinks to combat obesity and diabetes. At the time, it stated that a 20% increase in the price of these drinks would significantly reduce consumption.

But in the report released Friday, which recommends taxes on tobacco and alcohol, these authors abandon any recommendation to tax sweetened beverages. Instead, they write about the taxation of sugar that “some points of view were contradictory and could not be solved”.

Dr. Sania Nishtar, one of the co-chairs of this independent non-communicable disease commission, said that most of the 26 members of the group were in favor of a tax on sweetened beverages. But a commissioner – whose identity she has not disclosed – has hindered the drafting of stronger language, mainly on the effectiveness of the sugar tax introduced in some countries.

“The introduction of the [sweetened beverages] tax is relatively recent, and the data we have is about lower consumption,” Nishtar told reporters at WHO headquarters.

She added that “the objection was that […] we should not make a bold recommendation”. She said the Commissioner did not believe there was enough health data on this – a point later refuted by WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus.

Instead of explicitly recommending a sugar tax, the committee leaves these decisions to the countries.

“When engagement with the private sector does not contribute to public health goals, governments should use their regulatory and legislative powers to protect their populations,” says the report.

“Difficult to understand”

Jack Winkler, a professor emeritus of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, said there is now convincing evidence that the taxation of sugary drinks works, citing, among other works, a recent article in the medical journal The BMJ .

According to him, recently adopted policies in the United Kingdom show that the taxation of high-sugar beverages has not only prompted manufacturers to reformulate their products, but that “it has made healthy choice the cheapest choice”.

Dr. Winkler said that WHO’s recognition of the slow progress in the fight against obesity makes it particularly unfortunate that it refuses to support sugar taxes altogether.

When WHO does not endorse a practical solution that also raises money, it is particularly absurd.

Jack Winkler, Professor Emeritus of Nutrition Policy at London Metropolitan University
In its new report, WHO recommends that governments give priority to measures to restrict junk food advertising. “WHO should explore the possibility of establishing an international code of conduct on this issue […] while recognizing the need for partnerships based on alignment of interests,” reads.

For Martin McKee, a professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the inability of the WHO commission to reach an agreement on sugar taxes is “difficult to understand”.

He noted, however, that this report was only the first of the Committee of Experts, and that subsequent versions might be different.

“It would be very disappointing if this issue was not resolved in the next report,” McKee said.

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