US blocks UN health panel on sugar tax

The US has blocked a UN health panel from backing a tax on sugary drinks on the basis that it wasn't clear such a tax would improve public health.

Carbonated drinks surrounded by sugar cubes.

Carbonated drinks surrounded by sugar cubes. Source: PA Wire

The Trump administration has torpedoed a plan to recommend higher taxes on sugary drinks, forcing a World Health Organisation panel to back off the UN agency's previous call for such taxes as a way to fight obesity, diabetes and other life-threatening conditions.

The move disappointed many public health experts but was enthusiastically welcomed by the International Food and Beverage Alliance, a group that represents companies including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Unilever.

The revelations came on Friday as a WHO panel on non-communicable diseases issued a report that aimed to cut down on diseases like diabetes, cancer and obesity, which kill about 40 million people each year. The fight against such diseases is a priority for WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Dr Sania Nishtar, co-chair of the panel, said most of its 26 members supported a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages but one commissioner - whom she did not identify - hampered drafting stronger language.

Eric Hargan, the US deputy secretary for Health and Human Services, reported he was that member, arguing it was not clear that imposing taxes on sugary drinks like sodas and fruit juices would improve public health - even though WHO has argued exactly that over the past two years.

"Deputy Secretary Hargan opposed endorsing increasing taxes on sugary drinks in the commission report," HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said, noting that the panel's mandate was to make "bold" recommendations. "Taxes on sugary drinks is not new, bold, or innovative."

She also claimed that "evidence is lacking that such a tax produces positive health outcomes".

The US provides a significant percentage of WHO's yearly budget.

The sweetened-drink industry has come out strongly against any such tax but Nishtar said she was not aware of any industry lobbying of the commissioners.

Commission member Ilona Kickbusch, a former WHO staffer who directs the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, said the US "made it clear" that it did not want more regulation.

"They (the Trump administration) felt that the evidence was not strong enough that the tax would not reduce the obesity epidemic," she said.

Commission members said they decided to press ahead with the report, leaving open the possibility that the commission could strengthen its call in the future. The independent commission, created last year by Ghebreyesus, did recommend taxes on tobacco and alcohol.

Published 2 June 2018 at 7:40am