Weighing in on sugar tax

The World Health Organisation’s recommendation that nations tax sugary drinks is a well-meaning one, but the needs of local communities cannot be left out

Updated - December 01, 2016 06:07 pm IST

Published - October 16, 2016 01:10 am IST

THE SCOOP:  “Nutritionally, people don’t need any sugar in their diet.”

THE SCOOP: “Nutritionally, people don’t need any sugar in their diet.”

If, some years down the line, there was to be a retrospective of crucial life-saving public health interventions, the World Health Organisation’s recommendation, of October 11, 2016, might well be a red-letter moment — that nations tax sugary drinks, in the face of what seems like an overwhelming global addiction to them. It presumed that this would go on to “lower consumption and reduce obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay”.

Health benefits The WHO indicated that “at least a 20 per cent increase in the retail price of sugary drinks would result in proportional reductions in consumption of such products”. Deriving its conclusions from the report “Fiscal policies for Diet and Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs)”, the organisation argued that reduced consumption of sugary drinks means lower intake of “free sugars” and calories overall, apart from improved nutrition. This again means fewer and fewer people will suffer from overweight, obesity, diabetes and tooth decay in the future.

The Director, WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, Dr. Francesco Branca, went on to explain: “Nutritionally, people don’t need any sugar in their diet. WHO recommends that if people do consume free sugars, they keep their intake below 10 per cent of their total energy needs, and reduce it to less than 5 per cent for additional health benefits. This is equivalent to less than a single serving (at least 250 ml) of commonly consumed sugary drinks per day.”

The case in India So, yes, it does seem that a sweet tooth is all in the mind, the effect of years of conditioning and gratification. Dieticians have argued that the true dependence on sugar started over the last couple of decades with the rampant proliferation of all manner and consistency of sugary drinks. India — if one were to believe the actual numbers of people living with diabetes, at over 60 million in 2013 — is sitting on a mountain of sugar. While media reports say that the Union Ministry of Health has been contemplating the regulation of advertising, and increasing the tax on both junk food and sweetened beverages, it is yet to take an actual step. Kerala has done so recently with a tax on some types of foods.

Public Health England, an executive agency sponsored by the Department of Health, U.K., in its report, “Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action”, published nearly a year before the WHO’s announcement, said: “We are eating too much sugar and it is bad for our health.” Its statement set alarm bells ringing on the consumption of sugar and sugar-sweetened drinks in schoolchildren.

Independently, an observation by the director, Madras Diabetes Research Foundation, R.M. Anjana, from observing patients in the south of the country, was that “the consumption of sugary drinks is a major problem in children and this is easily linked to obesity and diabetes. If implemented, like the tobacco tax, which reportedly helped decrease tobacco consumption, such a tax might be able to cut down the consumption of sugary drinks among children and would be a positive step towards preventing obesity.”

The Chairman, National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation, Anoop Misra, says the idea could not have come at a better time. “Imposing such a tax is an idea we have been advocating. As has been already published, the imposition of such tax will decrease obesity and diabetes in India. Such legal and administrative options in imposition of tax have borne results in other countries such as Mexico. It is also particularly suited for India where sweet and sugar intake is high.”

But it is important to keep in mind what The Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases 2013-2020 cautions nations about: the tax must be well-implemented, taking into consideration the needs of local communities in order for its benefits to be properly harnessed.


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