One of the many weapons in the global war against chronic diseases like diabetes should be a sugar tax, said the World Health Organization (WHO) in a report this Tuesday.

The WHO’s report, “Fiscal Policies for Diet and Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases,” addressed several proposed policy recommendations for improving nutrition and detailed the evidence for and against their implementation. When it came to sugar, the WHO authors concluded a 20 percent increase in the retail price of sugary drinks could curb people’s consumption of added, or free, sugar by an amount substantial enough to be worthwhile. This reduction could in turn dramatically benefit people’s health and wallets down the road, they added.

“Consumption of free sugars, including products like sugary drinks, is a major factor in the global increase of people suffering from obesity and diabetes,” said Dr. Douglas Bettcher, director of WHO’s Department for the Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases, in a statement. “If governments tax products like sugary drinks, they can reduce suffering and save lives. They can also cut healthcare costs and increase revenues to invest in health services.”

Sugar cubes Sugar has health effects on the human brain and body. Pixabay, Public Domain

Some of the best and most recent evidence for a sugar tax has come from the country of Mexico, which enforced such a policy in 2014, the WHO cited. A study in The BMJ published earlier this January found that the tax, which added one peso ($.06 USD) to every liter of soda, may have helped cut sales of soda by an average of 6 percent, and increased the sale of water and other non-taxed drinks by 4 percent. And while all socioeconomic groups saw a drop in sugary drink intake, the largest drops were seen in the poor — a group especially vulnerable to obesity and other sugar-related diseases. Less certain is whether this reduction has led to any noticeable health improvements.

Thirty-nine percent of people worldwide are overweight, as of 2014, and 11 percent are obese, the WHO noted. And 42 million children under the age of 5 are overweight or obese, a sharp increase of 11 million since the turn of the century. Lowering these figures will require a drastic reduction in sugar, said Dr. Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development.

“Nutritionally, people don’t need any sugar in their diet. WHO recommends that if people do consume free sugars, they keep their intake below 10% of their total energy needs, and reduce it to less than 5% for additional health benefits,” he said in the statement. “This is equivalent to less than a single serving (at least 250 ml) of commonly consumed sugary drinks per day,”

It’s estimated that the average American consumes more than 300 calories of added sugar every day, according to the Obesity Society.

Other policies recommended by the WHO include subsidizing the purchasing of fresh fruits and vegetables by 10 to 30 percent and encouraging public support for sugar and other nutritional taxes by using the tax money to fund other obesity prevention programs, which Mexico has already done.