Independent panel advising WHO silent on sugar taxes, opinions split over levies

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04 Jun 2018 --- A new report from an independent panel advising the World Health Organization (WHO) does not endorse sugar taxes on soft drinks as a way of cutting obesity. Released last Friday in Geneva, the report entitled Time to Deliver does not specifically include a sugar tax among its recommendations to reduce non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – illness like cancer, heart conditions, breathing problems and obesity that are not caused by infections and are not passed on from person to person.

The Independent High Level Commission on Non-communicable Diseases is an independent panel that was set up by the World Health Organization (WHO) last year and does not necessarily represent the decisions or the policies of WHO. It was set up to advise on how to cut premature death from NCDs by a third by 2030. 

In October 2016, WHO recommended that government should impose a 20 percent sugar tax, saying that introducing legislation to tax sugary drinks is an effective government policy in the fight against obesity and rolling outlaws around the world would curtail consumption and impact on diabetes rates. 

At the time, WHO said that fiscal policies where at least a 20 percent increase is introduced to the retail price of sugary beverages would result in “proportional reductions in consumption.”

However, this latest report does not mention sugar tax because there were “conflicting views” on the issue. 

“The Commissioners represented rich and diverse views and perspectives. There was broad agreement in most areas, but some views were conflicting and could not be resolved,” says the report.

“As such, some recommendations, such as reducing sugar consumption through effective taxation on sugar-sweetened beverages and the accountability of the private sector, could not be reflected in this report, despite broad support from many Commissioners.”

“Nevertheless, as the first phase of the Commission’s work, we are delighted to be able to present to the Director-General a set of recommendations that we believe will help accelerate action against NCDs.”

Sugar tax starts to bite in the UK 
The UK’s sugar tax on soft drinks began in April following other countries that have already implemented similar levies such as Mexico and France. The UK’s sugar tax pushes up the price of sugar-sweetened soft drinks across Britain. It has two tiers; a lower rate of 18 pence per liter for beverages with a total sugar content between 5-8g per 100ml and a higher price of 24 pence per liter for drinks with total sugar more than 8g per 100ml.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May introduced the levy as part of the Childhood Obesity Strategy in a bid to change the consumption habits of children across the country as the latest statistics reveal Britain has a big problem with overweight and obese kids. Excessive sugar consumption, much of which comes from soft drinks, is being blamed for the crisis.

However, some observers claim that due to the aggressive reformulations that have already taken place within the soft drink sector, revenues collected as a result of the additional tax, may not be as high as first anticipated.

Agile businesses have been going through massive reformulation ahead of the UK’s sugar tax taking effect. 

What does the panel’s report recommend?
The Independent High Level Commission on Non-Communicable Diseases makes six recommendations in its report:

- Start from the top: Political leadership and responsibility, from capitals to villages. Heads of State and Government, not Ministers of Health only, should oversee the process of creating ownership at the national level of NCDs and mental health.

- Prioritize and scale up: Governments should identify and implement a specific set of priorities within the overall NCD and mental health agenda, based on public health needs.

- Embed and expand: Governments should reorient health systems to include health promotion and the prevention and control of NCDs and mental health services in their UHC policies and plans, according to national contexts and needs.

- Collaborate and regulate: Governments should increase effective regulation, appropriate engagement with the private sector, academia, civil society, and communities, building on a whole-of-society approach to NCDs, and share experiences and challenges, including policy models that work.

- Finance: Governments and the international community should develop a new economic paradigm for funding action on NCDs and mental health.

- Act for Accountability: Governments should strengthen accountability to their citizens for action on NCDs.

“We know the problem and we have the solutions, but unless we increase financing for NCDs, and demand all stakeholders be held responsible for delivering on their promises, we won’t be able to accelerate progress,” said Commission Co-chair Dr. Sania Nishtar. 

“The NCDs epidemic has exploded in low and middle-income countries over the last two decades. We need to move quickly to save lives, prevent needless suffering, and keep fragile health systems from collapsing.”

Fulfilling the promise of universal health coverage, to ensure all people everywhere can access quality health services without suffering financial hardship, is one of WHO’s top priorities. The Commission’s report will help guide countries as they make progress toward health for all and tackle both NCDs and infectious killers. 

“WHO was founded 70 years ago on the conviction that health is a human right to be enjoyed by all people and not a privilege for the few,” says WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The recommendations of this report are an important step towards realizing that right by preventing the suffering and death caused by non-communicable diseases.”

FoodIngredientsFirst has asked for WHO’s reaction to this latest report, specifically whether or not it will influence the organization’s stance on sugar taxes for soft drinks. 

A video interview which presents successful sugar reduction in juices, can be seen here from PLMA. FoodIngredientsFirst spoke with Bas Boswinkel, who discussed the company's new juice solutions. 

By Gaynor Selby

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