Proposals outlining a tax on sugared drinks endorsed by WHO

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

In March this year, the UK government introduced a sugar tax on the soft drinks industry. ©iStock
In March this year, the UK government introduced a sugar tax on the soft drinks industry. ©iStock
Mounting evidence suggests the introduction of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is justified as a way to lower intake and reduce cases of obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

In a report​produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that a levy on sugary drinks would result in ‘proportional reductions in consumption,’ especially if the retail price were to increase by 20% or more.

Some European countries have already implemented plans to deter consumers from products high in saturated fat as well as sugar. 

Finland has had excise duties put in place on sweets, chocolate and non-alcoholic beverages since 2011, which increased in 2012 and 2014.

Current excise tax rates are €0.95 per kilogram for sweets and ice cream. For non-alcoholic beverages the tax is €0.11 per litre.

Saturated fat label
The report also mentioned taxation of foods high in saturated fats and trans fat as a proven way of reduces their consumption.©iStock

In a similar vein France adopted a levy on beverages that contained added sugar or other sweeteners in 2011. Rates were set at €7.16 per hectolitre, increasing to €7.5 per hectolitre in 2015.

Hungary introduced a public health product tax (PHPT) in 2011 taxing non-staple food products that contained high sugars, salt or caffeine levels.

Countries, such as the UK and Northern Ireland have also announced intentions to implement taxes on sugary drinks.

The report is the culmination of outcomes presented in mid-2015 meeting of food experts convened by WHO.

The meeting featured findings from 11 recent systematic reviews of the effectiveness of fiscal policy interventions for improving diets and preventing Non Communicable Diseases (NCD).

One of the conclusions reached also presented strong evidence in favour of fresh fruit and vegetable subsidies. Here a reduction in prices by 10–30% was considered effective in increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.

“Greater effects on the net energy intake and weight may be accomplished by combining subsidies on fruit and vegetables and taxation of target foods and beverages,”​ the report said.

“Vulnerable populations, including low-income consumers, are most price-responsive and, in terms of health, benefit most from changes in the relative prices of foods and beverages.”

Sugar: A heavy issue

sugar tax pic verdateo
The report stated that,'trade measures, taxes and subsidies are important means of guaranteeing access and enabling healthy dietary choices.' ©iStock/piotr_malczyk

The WHO stated that in 2014, more than 1 in 3 (39%) adults worldwide aged 18 years and older were overweight.

Worldwide prevalence of obesity more than doubled between 1980 and 2014, with 11% of men and 15% of women (more than half a billion adults) being classified as obese.

In addition, an estimated 42 million children aged under 5 years were overweight or obese in 2015, an increase of about 11 million during the past 15 years.

The number of people living with diabetes has also been rising, from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014. The disease was directly responsible for 1.5 million deaths in 2012 alone.

The scale of these figures has led to redoubling efforts to reduce ‘free sugar’ intake, defined as the sugars present in glucose or fructose and sucrose or table sugar. These are usually added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer or consumer.

WHO also considers sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit juice concentrates in the same category.

“Nutritionally, people don’t need any sugar in their diet,”​ said Dr Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development.

“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.”

The WHO response

In an effort to stem the tide, WHO developed the ‘Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases 2013-2020,’ which set out the UN commitments on how to tackle NCDs.

The plan informed on progress made on nine global NCD targets to be met by 2025, which included a 25% reduction in early deaths from NCDs by 2025 and a reverse in global obesity cases to those of 2010.

In 2016 the World Health Assembly endorsed the report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. It contained six recommendations to tackle the obesogenic atmosphere and life stages where childhood obesity would most influence.

The Assembly asked the director-general to create an implementation plan to guide further action.

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