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WHO recommends `soda tax' on sugary beverages to fight obesity

17 October 2016

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended a 20 to 50 per cent `soda tax' on all unhealthy drinks like soda and sweetened beverages like colas, sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit punch, sweetened iced tea, vitamin waters, lemonade etc, in a bid to fight the global scourge of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

WHO has recommended that the tax should not be limited to soda, rather it should apply to all sugar-sweetened beverages.

''If governments tax products like sugary drinks, they can reduce suffering and save lives,'' Dr. Douglas Bettcher, director of the WHO's department for the prevention of noncommunicable diseases, said in a statement.

''They can also cut healthcare costs and increase revenues to invest in health services,'' he adds.

Unhealthy diet accounts for more than 11 million deaths annually, with four million deaths due to obesity, the United Nations health agency said while launching a new report that says taxing sugary drinks can yield major health benefits, such as reducing obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

The new WHO report, `Fiscal Policies for Diet and Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases', argues that fiscal policies that lead to at least a 20 per cent increase in the retail price of sugary drinks would result in proportional reductions in consumption of such products.

WHO says such reduced consumption would mean lower intake of ''free sugars'' and calories overall and improved nutrition, with fewer people suffering from overweight, obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.

Free sugars refer to monosaccharides such as glucose or fructose and disaccharides such as sucrose or table sugar added to food and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, along with sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices and concentrates.

''Consumption of free sugars, including products like sugary drinks, is a major factor in the global increase of people suffering from obesity and diabetes,'' emphasized Dr. Bettcher.

Between 1980 and 2014, global prevalence of obesity more than doubled with greater than half a billion adults 11 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women being classified as obese. In 2014, more than one in three, or 39 per cent of adults worldwide aged 18 and older, were overweight.

Dr. Francesco Branca, director of the agency's department of nutrition for health and development, described obesity, overweight and diabetes as major global heath challenges. ''Largely due to unhealthy diet, more than 600 million people overweight, including some 42 million children under the age of five,'' he said. Almost half of these children lived in Asia and a quarter in Africa.

The new WHO report highlights the need to intensify national action to meet the global targets governments have agreed to protect people from heart disease, cancers, diabetes, and lung diseases. Globally, these 4 noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) represent the largest cause of death in people aged under 70 years, posing a major threat to sustainable development.

The global survey, ''Assessing national capacity for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases'', shows that some countries are making remarkable progress. A number of countries have put in place measures to protect people from exposure to tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity. Some have created new financing opportunities to build strong public health systems by taxing tobacco products.

''Countries, including some of the poorest, are showing it is feasible to make progress and reduce premature deaths from NCDs. But that progress, particularly in low and middle-income countries, is insufficient and uneven,'' says Dr Oleg Chestnov, Assistant Director-General at WHO.

''If countries continue on this trajectory, there is no way they will all meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) target of reducing, by one-third, premature mortality from NCDs.''

According to the WHO, the number of people living with diabetes has also risen from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014. Moreover, the disease was also directly responsible for 1.5 million deaths in 2012 alone.

''We are recommending that [sugar intake] is reduced to 10 per cent of energy or even five percent,'' he said, emphasising that a key factor in keeping those numbers dangerously high is the ease of availability of sugary drinks in some parts of the world.

While the United States has been the leader in consumption of sugar sweetened drinks, it has been overtaken by Latin America, where Chile and Mexico are now the top consumers. Unfortunately, he continued, consumption is also rising in China and sub-Saharan Africa, where he said specifically, the rising sugar intake would have a ''devastating'' effect on obesity and overweight.

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