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Last Revised:
 12 Jannuary 2001

UN Recommends Taxes on Sugary Foods to Help Curb Increasing Cases of Obesity and Diabetes

Over 11 million lives are lost to unhealthy diet each year. Four million of these, which is about 36%, are caused by obesity. These figures were released by the UN health agency, and they were the basis for the recommendation that taxes on sugary drinks could help deal with obesity, tooth decay, and type 2 diabetes.

Beyond a reduction in these health issues, taxing these foods would also reduce the financial cost of healthcare and increase the amounts of funds available for other health programs. These words were said by the Director of WHO's department of Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs).

Photo: Two women enjoy a sugary drink in their store in Indonesia

Fittingly launched on World Obesity Day, the report recommends taxation as an effective fiscal approach to reduction of obesity and diabetes. By their projections, the experts behind this recommendation think that a 20% increase in cost of sugary drinks would cause a similar decline in their consumption rate.

This reduction is what WHO would be counting on since it would result in better nutrition, and reduced cases of obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. In particular, the goal is to reduce the intake of free sugars, which are monosaccharides such as glucose and fructose, as well as disaccharides like sucrose and table sugar.

These sugars have been implicated in increasing cases of obesity and diabetes. Today, over half a billion adults are obese; and over 39% of all adults of 18 and over are overweight. There has been more than a doubling of obesity rates between 1980 and 2014. The world also has over 42 million overweight children under the age of 5 years.

Part of the problem is that it's far too easy for people to get their hands on sugary foods in some parts of this world. Initially, the US was leading in the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks, but Latin America has since taken the lead, with China and sub-Saharan Africa steadily increasing their consumption of sugary foods.

This is an indication that the health problems the world is facing as a result of sugary food consumption could be about to reach unprecedented levels, which is why sweeping policy changes might be the answer the world needs. In fact, taxation is not the only approach that could help the world deal with its sugar problem.

However, since these sugars are mostly consumed by low income people who are more sensitive to price changes, the increased taxes would certainly have an impact on the consumption of these foods. The report also suggested that foods and drinks with health alternatives should be the primary targets of the higher rate of taxation.

Other effective measures would include introducing subsidies for fruits and vegetables to increase their consumption. But at the moment, some countries are already using taxes to reduce consumption of non-alcoholic beverages with added sugar. They include Mexico and Hungary. Other countries, among them South Africa, Philippines and the UK, have expressed a desire to tax sugary drinks to lower their consumption.

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