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The new WHO guidelines on fiscal policies for a healthy diet

On June 14, 2024, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new fiscal policy guidelines aimed at creating food environments that make it easier for consumers to make healthy food decisions. (1)

These guidelines recommend fiscal measures that discourage the consumption of unhealthy foods and instead promote access to healthy foods through subsidies and other incentives.

The current food environment and health challenges

Most of the population lives in a context where ultra-processed foods, rich in fat, sugar and sodium, are easily available and often cheap. These products are widely marketed, making it difficult for consumers to make healthy food choices. (3)

Unhealthy diets represent a major risk to global public health, contributing to the onset of non-communicable diseases (known as NDCs – noncommunicable diseases) such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. Consuming ultra-processed foods is also associated with an increased risk of dementia. (4)

Scientific studies to support tax policies

WHO guidelines are based on recent studies demonstrating the effectiveness of taxes on unhealthy foods, such as sugary drinks (so-called “Sugar-Sweetened Beverages” or SSB), in reducing demand and consumption. (5,6)

Useful measures, but still ignored in some countries, Italy first and foremost, where yet another postponement of the sugar tax has been granted to the lobby, as we have seen. (7)

The subsidies for healthy foods, such as fruit and vegetables, on the contrary, they increase their accessibility and convenience, thus encouraging their consumption. This promising approach facilitates better food choices, making the healthy choice even the simplest one.

Expert statements

'Fiscal policies, including taxes and subsidies, can significantly influence consumer and market behavior by affecting the prices and accessibility of products.

The subsidies can encourage the consumption of healthy products, while taxes can discourage the consumption of harmful products and stimulate the industry to reformulate its products', underlines Ruediger Krech, director of the WHO Department of Health Promotion.

Government action and the importance of guidelines

Governments play a crucial role in reducing the burden of diet-related NCDs, addressing malnutrition in all its forms and promoting healthy diets.

A growing number of countries is taking fiscal measures to promote healthy diets. From February 2024, 115 Member States will tax sugary drinks at national level, while another 41 have implemented taxes on various categories of unhealthy foods. In this regard, see the virtuous example of Colombia. (8)

Despite this progress, fewer countries have adopted subsidies to encourage the consumption of healthy foods or have removed taxes on them.

'Governments around the world are starting to take action, particularly by taxing sugary drinks.

These guidelines they will be a valuable tool for creating food environments that are more conducive to health at all levels.', says Francesco Branca, Director of the WHO Department of Nutrition and Food Security.

Conclusions

WHO guidelines offer evidence-based recommendations for implementing fiscal policies aimed at promoting healthy diets. This represents a fundamental step in an integrated and synergistic approach aimed at improving the health of the global population.

Dario Dongo

Footnotes

(1) World Health Organization. Fiscal policies to promote healthy diets: WHO guideline. 14.6.24. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240091016

(2) HLPE, Nutrition and food systems, report of the High Level Panel on Food Security and Nutrition of the World Committee on Food Security. 2017. https://openknowledge.fao.org/server/api/core/bitstreams/4ac1286e-eef3-4f1d-b5bd-d92f5d1ce738/content

(3) World Health Organization. Implementing fiscal and pricing policies to promote healthy diets: a review of contextual factors. 2021. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240035027

(4) Marta Strinati. Greater risk of dementia for those who consume ultra-processed foods. I study. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(5) Tatiana Andreyeva, Keith Marple, Samanta Marinello, et al.. Outcomes Following Taxation of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. JAMA Network Open. June 2022. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2792842

(6) Tatiana Andreyeva, Keith Marple, Timothy E. Moore TE, et al. Evaluation of Economic and Health Outcomes Associated With Food Taxes and Subsidies. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. 2022. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2792845

(7) Marta Strinati. Sugar tax and plastic tax, Italian-style referrals and discounts. Myopia at a high price. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(8) Marta Singed. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). Colombia, the tax on ultra-processed foods is underway. 9.11.23

Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.

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