Extras on Excise: Do Soda Taxes Work to Prevent Disease? U.S. Rep. to WHO Commission Is Skeptical


The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Independent High-level Commission on Noncommunicable Diseases released its report on policy recommendations to prevent premature death from cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes, and respiratory disease. The Commission has recommended increased taxes on certain products such as tobacco and alcohol as a means to curb preventable disease. However, the commission’s recommendations do not include plans to implement soda and sugary beverage taxes. Why not? A commission member from the United States says the taxes don’t work.

Although the report does not explicitly recommend taxes on sugary beverages, the commission co-chairs mention the controversy surrounding the proposal in their preface to the report:

“There was broad agreement in most areas, but some views were conflicting and could not be resolved. 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.”

U.S. Health and Human Services spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley confirmed that Deputy Secretary for Health and Human Services Eric Hargan was the WHO commission member who opposed the commission’s proposal for taxes on sugary beverages. As reported by the Associated Press, Oakley stated that “evidence is lacking that such a tax produces positive health outcomes.”

The Tax Foundation has cited several studies that suggest that the implementation of sugar-sweetened beverage taxes have had the effect of reducing consumption of those products, perhaps by as much as 20 percent in certain regions. However, the organization has also pointed out that studies of these taxes don’t necessarily indicate that these beverages are substituted for healthier options.

What does the WHO commission’s lack of consensus mean for the future of soda taxes in the U.S. and elsewhere? It’s hard to say. The commission’s debate about the effectiveness of sugary beverage taxes may only be symbolic as the WHO’s guidelines are not enforceable against member nations. And the report amounts to recommendations to the WHO and member nations at-large who may freely adopt or reject the commission’s ideas when setting policy. In other words, countries that have the political will to create a sugary beverage or soda tax may move forward regardless. And while some local jurisdictions in the U.S. have implemented soda taxes, others have been unsuccessful in enacting this type of tax. Which nations are interested in taxes on sweetened beverages may become clearer at the United Nations High-Level Meeting on Noncommunicable Diseases happening in September.

Bloomberg Tax is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg, who serves as one of the commissioners on the World Health Organization Independent High-Level Commission on Noncommunicable Diseases and acts as the WHO Global Ambassador for NCDs and Injuries.

Continue the discussion on Bloomberg BNA’s State Tax Group on LinkedIn: Is it smart policy to implement new taxes on sugary-beverages to fight diseases like obesity and heart disease?

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