Global Health

Will a sugar tax help reduce obesity?

Puzzle pieces made of different types of sugars are exhibited during the Madrid Fusion 5th International Summit of Gastronomy in Madrid January 16, 2007. REUTERS/Victor Fraile (SPAIN)

Norway has increased its tax on sugar, but is there a clear link to obesity? Image: REUTERS/Victor Fraile (SPAIN)

Briony Harris
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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Global Health

If there was a simple way to stop the world getting fatter, it would surely have been found and implemented by now.

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese, according to the World Health Organisation.

It is no longer just a problem for rich nations. Most of the world’s population now lives in a country where more people are overweight than underweight.

Obesity is costing the world $2 trillion dollars annually according to a report from the Mckinsey Global Institute, which classifies obesity as one of the top three social burdens generated by human beings, almost on a par with smoking and armed conflict.

But while there may not be one way to solve the problem, a tax on sugar is increasingly being considered as part of the solution.

And Norway - as it does on many issues - is leading the way.

The Norwegian example

Norway has had a tax on added sugar since 1922. But it decided to hike this tax by an enormous 83% at the start of 2018, with products like sweets and chocolates now taxed at $4.69 per kilo.

Many governments have had considerable success in using tax rises as a way to deter people from smoking and drinking alcohol, but will a sugar tax work in reducing obesity?

The world’s obesity epidemic is projected to get far worse by 2030 Image: OECD

Norway’s sugar consumption is already considerably lower than some countries, averaging 27kgs a year, compared to 34kgs a year for the average American. And only one in six children is overweight in Norway, according to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, compared to one in three children in the UK and US.

Parts of the food industry are worried that the tax will make Norway less competitive, and some residents have chosen to avoid the tax altogether by going shopping for treats in neighbouring Sweden.

But Norway has set itself a clear goal: It wants to reduce the sugar intake of each of its citizens by 12.5% by 2021.

While it is still too early to draw conclusions from the dramatic tax hike, the rest of the world will be watching closely to assess its impact on the nation’s eating habits.

And other countries are already choosing to follow suit, with both the UK and South Africa set to introduce their own tax on sugary drinks in the coming months.

And while there have been many active campaigns promoting the use of sugar taxes, there are also equally vocal opposition groups, often funded by the food and drinks industry.

The victimisation of sugar?

Campaigns such as People against Sugar Tax and the American Beverage Association believe that taxing sugary drinks or food items with a great deal of added sugar is unfairly casting sugar as the main cause of obesity.

Eating less sugar is one way to consume fewer calories. But so is eating less saturated fat or increasing the amount of exercise taken.

And there are many other actions that governments can take, including warning signs on food labels, stricter regulation of advertising and mass media campaigns to increase awareness of healthy food choices.

However, given the scale of the obesity epidemic, it is likely that a combination of all these measures will be required if significant progress is to be made.

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Related topics:
Global HealthHealth and HealthcareAgriculture, Food and Beverage
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