Tax the Fat Away: the WHO Says Yes

WHO recommends countries tax sugar-sweetened beverages to fight obesity epidemic

Sugar-sweetened beverages are known to contribute to the obesity epidemic (not to mention cavities). The World Health Organization (WHO)--the UN's public health arm--suggested a way to fight it.

In a recent report, the WHO recommends that countries begin to tax sugar-sweetened beverages, such as popular sodas along the lines of Pepsi and Coca-Cola, by at least 20 percent.

"There is reasonable and increasing evidence that appropriately designed taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages would result in proportional reductions in consumption, especially if aimed at raising the retail price by 20 percent or more,” the WHO said in their report.

Douglas Bettcher, MD, PhD, MPH, who heads the WHO's prevention of non-communicable disease department, said in a press release, "If governments tax products like sugary drinks they can reduce suffering and save lives."

A bold statement for sure, but what do the numbers actually say?

According to the WHO's estimations, 39 percent of adults globally were overweight and more than 500 million people over the age of 18 were obese in 2014. In 2015 the WHO found 42 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese--an increase of about 11 million children in 15 years.

In related news, a study just published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that beverage giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have given grants and other funding to non-profit and public health organizations, while also lobbying against health initiatives regarding sugar-sweetened beverages.

The number of people living with diabetes has quadrupled since 1980 from 108 million to 422 million in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The WHO asked fiscal experts to evaluate existing evidence to see how policies could be developed to decrease obesity rates.

Among other data, the experts looked at Mexico, where a tax on sugary drinks hiked the price by 10 percent and dropped consumption by six percent within one year. The sugar tax did not affect jobs in Mexico. Job loss has been one of the beverage industry’s arguments against taxing sugary beverages.

The WHO recommends a maximum intake of six teaspoons of sugar per day. However, the average sugar-sweetened beverage contains nine teaspoons.

The report also noted that subsidizing healthier alternatives to bring down food prices by 10 to 30 percent also increases consumption of fruits and vegetables.