Sun, Jun 03, 2018 - Page 5 News List

US blocks the WHO from backing sugary drink tax

AP, GENEVA, Switzerland

The US has torpedoed a plan to recommend higher taxes on sugary drinks, forcing a WHO panel to back off its previous call for such taxes as a way to fight obesity, diabetes and other life-threatening conditions.

The move disappointed many public health experts, but was enthusiastically welcomed by the International Food and Beverage Alliance — a group that represents companies including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Unilever.

The revelations came on Friday, as a WHO panel on non-communicable diseases issued a report that aimed to cut down on diseases like diabetes, cancer and obesity, which kill about 40 million people each year.

Panel cochair Sania Nishtar said most of its 26 members supported a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, but one commissioner hampered drafting stronger language.

US Deputy Secretary for Health and Human Services Eric Hargan reported that he was that member, saying it was not clear that imposing taxes on sugary drinks like sodas and fruit juices would improve public health.

The sweetened-drink industry has come out strongly against any such tax, but Nishtar said she was not aware of any industry lobbying of the commissioners.

Commission members said they decided to press ahead with the report, leaving open the possibility that the commission could strengthen its call in the future.

However, the independent commission did recommend taxes on tobacco and alcohol.

“[The] WHO’s position cannot change because of this report. What [the] WHO said some years ago holds, because consumption of sugar is associated with obesity and at the same time, taxing sugar was shown to reduce consumption in many countries,” WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“Not only that, the money from the taxes can be used to strengthen the health system,” he added. “There are many good examples of countries like Philippines, Ireland, South Africa and Mexico that have demonstrated this.”

Instead of explicitly recommending a sugar tax, the commission said that nations themselves should decide if they want higher taxes.

“When engagement with the private sector fails to contribute to the achievement of public health goals, governments should employ their regulatory and legislative powers to protect” their people, the report says.

Jack Winkler, an emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, rejected the US claim, saying there is convincing evidence that taxing sugary drinks works, citing, among other research, an article in the journal The BMJ.

He said policies adopted in Britain show that taxing sugar-loaded drinks not only spurred manufacturers to reformulate their products, but that “it has made the healthy choice the cheaper choice.”

Winkler said WHO’s own acknowledgment that progress on combating obesity and other non-communicable disease has been slow makes the panel’s refusal to endorse sugar taxes outright especially unfortunate.

“When WHO doesn’t pick up on a practical solution that also raises money, it is particularly absurd,” he said.

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