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WHO panel stops short of sugary tax

WHO called on governments to do more to reduce premature deaths from neglected chronic diseases, but stopped short of endorsing a sugary drinks tax.

GENEVA (AN) — The World Health Organization called on governments to do more to reduce premature deaths from neglected chronic diseases, but it stopped short of endorsing a sugary drinks tax or holding businesses accountable for unhealthy substances.

Enjoying life and promoting a sense of well-being are the aims of WHO's new report from an independent high-level commission about a worldwide epidemic of noncommunicable diseases, or NCDs, that kill 41 million people a year, or 71% of all deaths globally.

Fifteen million of those deaths, caused by heart disease, cancer, diabetes, chronic lung disease and other NCDs, occur between the ages of 30 and 70, the commission said in a 44-page report to WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who formerly led the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership.

The report was published online in the medical journal The Lancet and will be the basis for the U.N. General Assembly's third high-level meeting on NCDs at New York in September. The commission had six recommendations for governments:

  1. Approach NCDs on multiple fronts instead of solely through health officials.
  2. Set priorities based on public health needs.
  3. Stress prevention, control and mental health services in universal health coverage.
  4. Better involvement of the private sector, academia, civil society and communities.
  5. Boost funding on NCDs and mental health with the help of international communities.
  6. Strengthen and simplify international accountability for taking on NCDs.

The 26-member commission, with five co-chairs and 21 other members, acknowledged some division within the ranks in two key areas: whether to endorse national taxes on sugary drinks or to hold companies accountable for health-harming substances. But the commission's members, including Chilean ex-president Michelle Bachelet and New York City ex-mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, agreed tobacco and alcohol should be taxed.

"There was broad agreement in most areas, but some views were conflicting and could not be resolved," the report said. "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 commissioners."

Opposition to soda taxes

Two years ago, WHO recommended that nations consider placing a tax on sugary drinks to battle the obesity epidemic that has spread from rich nations to middle-income nations.

In a 2016 report entitled "Fiscal Policies for Diet and Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases," it presented new data on how adding a tax that raises the prices for sugary drinks by 20% could reduce sales and consumption, resulting in positive health benefits.

Commission member Eric Hargan, a deputy secretary for health and human services in U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, opposed having the commission recommend such a measure, The Associated Press reported. The U.N. health agency's US$4 billion budget comes from assessed and voluntary contributions, and the United States provides US$59 million, or 23.7%, of WHO's US$249 million in biennial assessed contributions, budget figures show.

The International Food and Beverage Alliance in Geneva, representing Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other global companies with more than US$410 billion in combined annual revenues, welcomed the report and said in a statement that it has in the past decade tried to address NCDs through more nutritious products, smaller portions and more responsible marketing.

Such economic incentives to cut sugar consumption are used in more than 30 nations including parts of the United States, according to data from the U.S.-based Global Food Research Program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. London-based World Obesity Federation said it hopes WHO's commission will reverse course and recommend in its final report to the U.N. General Assembly later this year that nations impose such taxes.

Many NCDs result from preventable causes such as smoking, car accident injuries, drowning, poor diet, sedentary lifestyles and inadequate maternal or obstetric care, health experts said. Only about 1% of health aid for poorer or middle-income nations goes towards NCDs.

Some of the solutions have been to package tobacco products with grim warning labels or to reduce sugar and salt in food and drink company products to promote health and wellness. In 2015, the Brazilian government, grappling with a population whose majority has become overweight, decided to tackle the nation's rising middle-class tastes for junk food by releasing a new food guide that promoted eating more whole foods and traditional fare.

A pillar of peace and democracy

Uruguay's President Tabaré Vázquez, an oncologist who-chairs the commission, urged world leaders to redouble efforts to meet one of the U.N.'s 17 anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 that calls for reducing premature deaths from NCDs by as much as a third.

“Preserving and improving people’s quality of life is a way of enhancing human dignity in order to make progress in terms of economic growth, social justice and human coexistence," said Vázquez. “Health is essential for peace and democracy. It is not a matter of spending a lot, but of making good investments.”

Other co-chairs are Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisenam, an ex-health minister; Finland's President Sauli Niinistö, who survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and raised two children after his wife's death in a car crash; Russian Healthcare Minister Veronika Skvortsova, a neurologist; and Pakistan's ex-federal minister Sania Nishtar, a cardiologist.

The bottom line, said Nishtar, is the world must act much more quickly because "the NCDs epidemic has exploded in low- and middle-income countries over the last two decades."