G-20 leaders urged to impose sugar tax

Move could help fight obesity and cut healthcare budgets, say diabetes experts

LONDON • Diabetes experts called on world leaders yesterday to use sugar taxes to fight obesity, arguing that such a move would save lives and slash healthcare budgets.

Ahead of a meeting of Group of 20 (G-20) leaders this weekend, the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) wants the dual epidemics of obesity and diabetes to be placed on the global agenda alongside major geopolitical and financial issues.

With one death every six seconds, diabetes is now a bigger killer than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined. The IDF estimates that most countries spend between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of their healthcare budget on the disease.

LESSONS FROM TOBACCO

It is very well-established that heavy taxation on tobacco and relentless reinforcement of the message that tobacco is unhealthy has had a very good effect. It is time now we adopted a similar approach with sugar.

DR PETRA WILSON, chief executive of the International Diabetes Federation

Type 2 diabetes, which is closely linked to obesity and sedentary lifestyles, accounts for approximately 90 per cent of cases and is increasing quickly, particularly in developing economies where people are shifting to Western diets.

The largest number of diabetics in the world now live in China.

Diabetes puts not only patients but whole economies at risk, according to Dr Petra Wilson, chief executive of the IDF, an umbrella organisation of more than 230 national associations. She urged G-20 leaders of the world's major advanced and emerging economies to cooperate in fighting obesity in the same way as they acted together in the 2008 financial crisis. The leaders are meeting in Turkey on Sunday and Monday.

Dr Wilson said the call was part of an ongoing IDF campaign and there was no sign as yet if the G-20 would address the topic.

By 2040, one in every 10 adults on the planet is expected to be diabetic, with cases projected to reach 642 million as against 415 million this year. Healthcare spending on diabetes is predicted to rise to US$802 billion (S$1.1 trillion) from US$673 billion.

Some countries, including Mexico, Chile and France, have already experimented with different variations of sugar taxation. But there are considerable political obstacles, as well as resistance from the food industry. Mexico, for example, has seen calls by some lawmakers for the country's sugar tax to be halved. British Prime Minister David Cameron came out against such a tax last month, despite a high-profile campaign for a levy on sugary drinks and food.

Dr Wilson, whose immediate focus is on getting governments to back a tax on sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages, admitted there are hurdles. But she argued politicians need to protect public health by learning the lessons from tobacco.

"It is very well-established that heavy taxation on tobacco and relentless reinforcement of the message that tobacco is unhealthy has had a very good effect. It is time now we adopted a similar approach with sugar," she said.

"It is, of course, more difficult with sugar because while people can live entirely without tobacco, they can't live entirely without sugar - but humans can live without added sugars."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2015, with the headline 'G-20 leaders urged to impose sugar tax'. Print Edition | Subscribe