On Tuesday, the World Health Organization issued a recommendation that countries enact a 20 percent tax on sodas and sugary beverages, as part of a push to reduce obesity, which has increased substantially in recent decades. The organization also presented data indicating that such a tax would reduce consumption of sugary drinks by a proportional 20 percent, which would constitute a significant victory in the campaign against obesity.
According to the WHO, obesity has more than doubled since 1980. In 2014, 600 million people over the age of 18 were obese – 13 percent of all adults. The majority of the world’s population live in countries where more people die as a result of being overweight than underweight.
According to Dr. Douglas Bettcher, director of the WHO’s Department for the Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases, “If governments tax products like sugary drinks, they can reduce suffering and save lives. They can also cut health care costs.”
Obesity began rising in richer countries like the US and Western Europe decades ago, but today it is becoming increasingly common in countries such as China and Mexico. Public health officials have been pressing even harder to find policies to reverse this trend. Taxes on sodas and sugary drinks are one proposed solution, since these beverages have been linked to obesity, as well as other health problems such as tooth decay and diabetes.
In the US, taxes on sugary drinks have been fought against vigorously by the food industry. A New York City tax was struck down by courts, although both Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Berkeley, California have successfully imposed such a tax. Mexico imposed a sugary drink tax in 2013, and since then has seen rates of consumption drop considerably.
This is not the first time the health organization has urged countries to impose a tax on sugary drinks. However, the recent report also presented data that showed how effective these taxes could be, from a panel of experts who met in 2015. These experts drew their conclusions from a review of existing scientific literature, including data from countries who have imposed such a tax, and from mathematical models. The panel also recommended subsidies to reduce the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables
Such drinks are a problem especially for children and for the poor, and price increases have been especially effective in reducing consumption among those groups.
Director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, Dr. Francesco Branca, has recommended consuming no more than one 8 ounce serving of sugary beverages daily.