Sugar tax: WHO criticised over 'very worrying U-turn'

The World Health Organization is under fire for allegedly ditching its support for taxing sugary drinks to tackle obesity after a high-powered taskforce it set up failed to back the policy.

The WHO has been accused of performing “a very worrying U-turn” after its commission on non-communicable diseases (NCD), which it set up to advise it, said it could not recommend sugar taxes as a key weapon in the global fight against obesity.

NCDs are what health experts call illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, heart conditions, obesity and breathing problems that are not caused by infections and cannot be passed from person to person. Between them, they kill 41 million people a year worldwide.

The view of the commission, set up to advise the WHO on how to tackle some of the world’s most preventable killer diseases, is at odds with the WHO’s previously strong support for sugar taxes.

In 2016, it enthusiastically endorsed sugary drinks taxes as a way of driving down sales, reducing their consumption and saving lives. Countries should consider introducing a tax on sugary drinks and set it at 20%, the WHO 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 increase in health services,” Dr Douglas Bettcher, the director of the WHO’s department for the prevention of non-communicable diseases, said at the time.

But the commission’s report, released on Friday in Geneva and called Time to Deliver, explains that it does not include a sugar tax among its recommendations to reduce NCDs – aimed at governments and heads of state worldwide – because its members disagreed about it.

In a message from its five co-chairs they admit: “There was broad agreement in most areas, but some views were conflicting and could not be resolved. As such, some recommendations, such as reducing sugar consumption through effective taxation on sugar-sweetened beverages and the accountability of the private sector, could not be reflected in this report, despite broad support from many [of the 21] commissioners.”

Anti-obesity campaigners reacted with dismay to the WHO commission’s stance.

Graham MacGregor, the chair of Action on Sugar, a London-based health charity, who is also a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London, said: “While the report makes a recommendation for governments to employ their regulatory and legislative powers to protect their populations, especially among children, the WHO has completely ignored any mention of a sugar tax on sugary drinks, despite a call by them for a 20% tax in 2016, which is completely scandalous and a very worrying U-turn.

“They should also be recommending a 20% tax on all sweet and chocolate confectionery, the highest contributors of sugar in the British diet, and not pander to corporate lobbying.”

The Children’s Food Campaign, a London-based alliance of health, education and children’s organisations, called the failure to support a sugary drinks tax as “a startling omission”.

It said: “There is a startling omission in relation to the turbo-charging power of fiscal measures such as the UK’s soft drinks levy or sugary drinks tax which, according to Public Health England, has already achieved an 11% reduction in sugar levels in that category since 2015, compared to a pitiful 2% average reduction in sugar through the government’s voluntary targets for the private sector.

“This report appears to be rather sugar-shy when it comes to the bold recommendations the WHO director-general has called for.”

It dismissed the commission’s recommendations as “vague and lacklustre” and out of step with the growing crackdown worldwide on sugar and junk food.

In an evidence review it published in 2014 the WHO had also specifically endorsed a tax on sugary drinks, given their association with avoidable mortality from diabetes, stroke, heart attacks and cancer. “Particular attention has been paid to taxing sugar-sweetened beverages as evidence suggests that such taxes could substantially reduce consumption and may contribute to a reduction in overweight and obesity”, it concluded.

The commission’s five co-chairs were the presidents of Finland, Sri Lanka and Uruguay, a Russian health minister and former minister in Pakistan’s government. The 21 commissioners included presidents, ex-presidents, current and former government ministers, academics, doctors and health experts from across the globe. They included Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York in 2001-13, who is now the WHO’s global ambassador for NCDs and injuries.

A WHO spokesman insisted that it still supported taxing sugary drinks. He said: “This is a report by an independent commission, not WHO. WHO stands by its evidence-based guidance, including on the benefits of using fiscal policies to reduce exposure to harmful products, including sugar-sweetened beverages.”

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