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WHO backs sugary drinks taxes

More countries should follow the UK’s lead and introduce taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks, according to a new report published by the World Health Organisation.

“[…] 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% or more,” WHO noted.

It also found “similar strong evidence” that subsidies for fresh fruits and vegetables that cut prices by 10–30% are effective in increasing consumption of fruit and veg.

The report, “Fiscal Policies for Diet and Prevention of Non-communicable Diseases”, pointed to national dietary surveys that showed how products high in free sugars can be a “major source” of unnecessary calories in people’s diets, particularly in the case of children, adolescents and young adults.

It also highlighted that some groups – including people living on low incomes, young people and those who frequently consume unhealthy foods and beverages – are most responsive to changes in the prices of drinks and foods and therefore “gain the highest health benefits”.

Dr Douglas Bettcher, director of WHO’s department for the prevention of non-communicable diseases, said: “If governments tax products like sugary drinks, they can reduce suffering and save lives. They can also cut healthcare costs and increase revenues to invest in health services.”

The UK announced plans to tax sugar-sweetened drinks back in March. A consultation on the policy was formally launched in August as part of the Government’s new plan to tackle childhood obesity.

The Food and Drink Federation is fiercely opposed to the levy. The organisation, which represents food and drink manufacturers, has also raised concerns about the Government’s planned sugar reduction targets across a number of food categories.

However, the emphasis on voluntary agreements within the childhood obesity plan has angered campaigners and retailers alike.

The British Retail Consortium said the plan relies “too heavily” on voluntary agreements. “Government must now show real leadership in getting every single food company to commit fully and play its part,” said BRC director of food and sustainability Andrew Opie.

A consumer poll published last month showed that three in four Brits wants to see firms forced to cut the sugar content of foods. The 20% sugar reduction targets set out by government will not be mandatory.