S Is for Sugar

Experts Split on the Magic of Taxing Sugar

On Friday, an independent panel advising the World Health Organization backed away from a recommendation for  taxing sugar to reduce obesity. Pakistan’s former health minister, Sania Nishtar, co-chaired the WHO Independent High-Level Commission on Noncommunicable diseases. She explained what happened:

The reason behind the opposition of one commissioner in particular was with regard to the strength of evidence (on sugar). We did not have any input from the sugar industry.

Reluctance from the U.S.

A deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Eric Hargan, was quick to say that he was the problem child. An HHS spokesperson explained:

Deputy Secretary Hargan opposed endorsing increasing taxes on sugary drinks in the commission report, The panel’s mandate was to make “bold” recommendations. Taxes on sugary drinks is not new, bold, or innovative.

Undaunted, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated his support for taxing sugar:

One thing I would like to assure you is the WHO position cannot change because of this report. This is because youth consumption of sugar is associated with obesity. At the same time, taxing sugar was shown to reduce consumption in many countries. Not only that, the money from tax can help to strengthen the health system.

In 2016, WHO recommended that countries impose a 20% tax on sugary drinks to reduce obesity.

A Tarnished Silver Bullet?

We seem to be using up our silver bullets for reducing obesity. For a long time, low-fat foods were just the ticket for better health and healthy weight. Now, some people blame that experiment on some of the rise in obesity through the 1980s and 90s. Blaming obesity on low-fat diets is a controversial idea that others call a myth. But nobody is arguing that the low-fat fad helped.

Remember food deserts? Plunking down supermarkets in them was supposed to ease the problem. But that magical thinking didn’t do much, either.

And then, there’s menu labeling. After years of fighting about it, the requirement to list calories on restaurant menus is going nationwide. But the evidence has accumulated to suggest it will do nothing to reduce obesity.

Taxing sugar is an idea that is maturing, but not yet in decline. Mexico passed a strong sugar and junk food tax in 2013. Advocates cheered. They are quick to tell us that consumption of the taxed products has declined. However, we’ve yet to see any effect on obesity. In fact, Mexico has “stumbled” in its efforts to prevent obesity.

Overselling one silver bullet after another for obesity prevention is chipping away at the credibility of public health activists. We would do well to wean ourselves from magical thinking about obesity. This complex problem requires open, inquisitive minds to test innovative strategies. We need hard data for real outcomes to guide us. Suppositions are not good enough.

Click here, here, and here for more about WHO’s position on taxing sugar.

S Is for Sugar, photograph © Cyril Hanquez / flickr

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June 3, 2018

One Response to “Experts Split on the Magic of Taxing Sugar”

  1. June 04, 2018 at 1:37 am, Chester Draws said:

    Could not agree more. Calming down about a “crisis” which actually isn’t a real crisis, and not trying stuff at random hoping it is the next big thing is a step forward.

    However, eventually Public Health will come to the obvious conclusion. They can’t do anything about obesity without invoking police like powers. Short of rationing or fines, nothing will work very well.

    I don’t expect them to realise this quickly however. Their income streams depend on not realising it.

    Look back at history and try to find any examples where governments can fight individuals’ behaviour successfully. The Communists tried to cure religious belief, and Franco tried to cure Atheism, with equal failure. Governments simply cannot change human nature, even when they use coercive powers.

    Obesity is a problem at the level of individuals. It must be fought at the level of individuals.