- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The United Nations jumped into the soda wars Tuesday, urging the nations of the world to start taxing everything from Pepsi to papaya juice as a way to trim expanding global waistlines and fight diseases such as diabetes.

The World Health Organization, in a 36-page report released on World Obesity Day, said rising consumption of sodas, sports drinks and even pure fruit juices had contributed to a doubling of global obesity rates from 1980 through 2014. A 20 percent tax on such drinks would produce roughly a comparable reduction in consumption, in line with the way government taxes on tobacco had reduced smoking rates.

While private critics and the beverage industry say higher taxes have not proven effective in many cases, the U.N. agency said there was “strong evidence” that taxes can be a “very important tool” in the fight to reduce the consumption of “sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Sugar consumption, especially in the form of Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew, “is a major factor in the global increase of people suffering from obesity and diabetes,” Dr. Douglas Bettcher, director of WHO’s Department for the Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases, said in a statement. “If government taxes products like sugary drinks, they can reduce suffering and save lives. They can also cut health care costs and increase revenues to invest in health services.”

Soft drinks aren’t the only target of the U.N. tax push. Temo Waqanivalu, a colleague of Dr. Bettcher in the WHO department, said the tax should be levied on every beverage product containing “free sugars,” including soda pop, fruit drinks, fruit-based alcoholic drinks such as cordials, energy and sports drinks, breakfast drinks and even “100 percent fruit juices.”

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who famously tried to institute a virtual “Big Gulp” ban on the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces, only to be blocked by the state’s highest court, praised the world body’s call for higher taxes from governments around the world.

“A growing number of cities and countries — including Mexico — are showing that taxes on sugary drinks are effective at driving down consumption,” said Mr. Bloomberg, who now serves as a “global ambassador for noncommunicable diseases” for the WHO. Tuesday’s report “can help these effective policies spread to more places around the world, and that will help save many lives.”

The Washington-based International Council of Beverages Associations said it was “disappointed” by the WHO report, calling it a simplistic solution focusing on just one part of the “very real and complex challenge of obesity.”

“We strongly disagree with the committee’s recommendations to tax beverages, as it is an unproven idea that has not been shown to improve public health based on global experiences to date,” the ICBA said in a statement. “While we support WHO’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.”

Philadelphia this summer became the first major U.S. city to institute a sugar tax on drinks, and Oakland voters will consider a similar measure next month. But the international record on the effectiveness of sugared beverage taxes and related dietary taxes is a matter of fierce debate.

Denmark instituted what is believed to be the world’s first soda tax in the 1930s but abolished it in 2014, citing the negative effect on jobs and the local economy. Critics said sugar- and fat-craving Danes were simply going across the border to Sweden or Germany to avoid the tax.

The WHO survey noted that Mexico — whose obesity rates recently surpassed those of the United States — and Hungary have implemented new taxes to discourage sugar consumption, and governments in the Philippines, South Africa and the U.K. are also weighing taxes on sugary drinks. Although higher prices are never popular, the WHO argues they can be made more palatable if the revenues from the tax are earmarked for public health and exercise programs.

But the beverage industry says the U.N. experts are underestimating the real-world impact of sugar taxes.

“In Mexico, for example, 10,000 jobs were lost and those who could least afford it carried the burden of the tax, all for a minimal decrease of fewer than 6 calories per day out of a diet of 3,000 calories,” according to the ICBA. “And statements by the authors such as, ‘People don’t need any sugar in their diet’ do not constitute helpful or real-world guidance to the millions of families trying to negotiate a healthy balance every day.”

Mexico imposes a 10 percent tax on sugary drinks, and some health experts are pushing the government to double the amount.

The debate comes amid what health experts say is a rising global rate of obesity and diseases tied to weight and diet.

WHO officials say that the U.S. is no longer the leading consumer of sugar-sweetened beverages, surpassed by Mexico and Chile, with consumption also sharply up in China and sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2014 nearly 2 billion adults worldwide over the age of 18 were overweight, and 13 percent — 600 million — are considered clinically “obese.”

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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