The World Health Organisation (WHO) has joined those calling for a “sugar tax” on soft drinks.
Their new report on childhood obesity says there is strong evidence that a sugar tax can work alongside other measures, such as reducing portion sizes and clarifying unclear food labelling.
It also calls for a crackdown on the marketing of junk food to children and for schools to ban the sale of unhealthy food.
Forty one million children under the age of five are obese or overweight worldwide, up from 31m in 1990, the WHO’s independent Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity found.
Calling for a sugar tax, the commission said: “Overall, the rationale for taxation measures to influence purchasing behaviours is strong and supported by the available evidence.
“The commission believes there is sufficient rationale to warrant the introduction of an effective tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
"It is well-established that the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with an increased risk of obesity.”
The report said those on low incomes and their children “have the greatest risk of obesity in many societies and are most influenced by price”.
It added: “Fiscal policies may encourage this group of consumers to make healthier choices (provided healthier alternatives are made available), as well as providing an indirect educational and public health signal to the whole population.”
Public Health England (PHE) also backs the possibility of a sugar tax of up to 20%.
Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has said he does not see the need for a sugar tax, although his position is believed to have shifted.
A PHE report released in November said the levy would tackle the obesity crisis by curbing demand for unhealthy food and drinks.
The study was originally shelved by health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, but a row between the government, PHE, and MPs on the Commons health committee led to claims it was suppressed.
In its new report, WHO set out a range of measures to tackle childhood obesity, saying: “Processed, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and sugar-sweetened beverages, in increasing portion size, at affordable prices, have replaced minimally-processed fresh foods and water in many settings, at school and family meals.
“The easy access to energy-dense foods and sugar-sweetened beverages, and the tacit encouragement to ‘size-up’ through commercial promotions, have contributed to the rising caloric intake in many populations.”
Members of the commission said it was no longer sufficient to rely on “simple codes” for food labelling.
They called for tighter regulations around the marketing of food and drinks to children, “to reduce the exposure of children and adolescents to, and the power of, the marketing of unhealthy foods”.
The report also dismissed efforts by industry, saying: “Despite the increasing number of voluntary efforts by industry, exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods remains a major issue demanding change that will protect all children equally.”
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