The World Health Organization’s recommendation for the levy of taxes on beverages defined as “sugary” represents the latest effort by consumer and governmental groups to seek simple solutions to the complex problem of obesity. Similar tactics were correctly employed to reduce tobacco consumption, but such efforts only came after much research was conducted to correlate the use of tobacco with myriad negative health conditions. No such evidence exists for sugar or the consumption of sugary beverages, and W.H.O.’s recommendation should concern food and beverage manufacturers as well as public health officials genuinely committed to lower the incidence of obesity.
“Fiscal policies (taxes) that lead to at least a 20% increase in the retail price of sugary drinks would result in proportional reductions in consumption of such products,” the W.H.O. said, based on a Technical Meeting Report titled “Fiscal policies for diet and prevention of non-communicable diseases.”
The global group said reduced consumption of sugary drinks means lower intake of “free sugars” and calories overall, improved nutrition and fewer people suffering from overweight, obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. Nutritionally, the W.H.O. adds, people don’t need any sugar in their diet.
The beverage industry rightly called the recommendations discriminatory and unproven, and called for a more comprehensive approach to the issue. This is good advice given what is happening in the United States.
Data published Feb. 23 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the prevalence of obesity among adults aged 20 and over continues to remain high. The data indicate 30.6% of U.S. adults are obese, up from 29.9% in 2014. Obesity rates climbed steadily during the nearly 20 years covered in the data, and the incidence of obesity has jumped more than 50% since 1997.
The rise in the U.S. obesity rate has occurred at the same time consumers have been reducing their consumption of carbonated soft drinks. Data published by the NPD Group shows that U.S. per capita consumption of soft drinks peaked in 1998 at nearly 53 gallons, fell slightly and plateaued until 2004 and has fallen steadily ever since to below 40 gallons in 2015. Accompanying this decline in soft drink consumption was a dramatic increase in accompanied bottled water demand.
Given this experience, it is difficult to understand how taxes will lead to a reduction in the incidence of obesity. The W.H.O. previously recommended people limit added sugar intake to no more than 5% of their daily energy calories, which is lower than most current recommendations of a 10% maximum.
The W.H.O. report said national dietary surveys indicate drinks and foods high in free sugars may be a major source of unnecessary calories in people’s diets, especially in children, adolescents and young adults. The report cited existing taxes in Mexico and Hungary, and either announced or potential taxes in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Philippines and some U.S. cities as examples of programs that may be considered. The report did not establish whether any of the programs have been successful.
The International Council of Beverages Associations, which includes the American Beverage Association, The Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo, Inc., and other domestic and international companies and associations, took a dim view of the effort. Expressing its opposition to the proposal, the group describes beverage taxes as an unproven idea that has not been shown to improve public health based on global experiences to date.
“While we support W.H.O.’s efforts to address obesity, we believe a comprehensive approach including emphasis on the whole diet is necessary to achieve a real and lasting solution,” the group said.
This advice is sound. The recent history of U.S. soft drink consumption illustrates the pitfalls of drawing a direct line linking the rate of obesity to sugary beverages. Targeting a single ingredient is not a solution. It is a distraction from the real problem that will only delay the development of meaningful efforts and solutions.