The World Health Organisation issued a statement on Tuesday urging countries to impose a tax on sugary drinks in an effort to battle the growing obesity epidemic and presented new data on the beneficial health effects of such a tax in support of the statement.

A 20% tax is suggested to be implemented on sugary beverages and it is predicted that a proportionate reduction in their consumption would occur consequently, the agency said. Obesity rates have doubled since 1980 and it is predicted that this would advance the fight against obesity. In 2014, approximately half a billion of adults were obese - 11% of the population men and 15% women.

"If governments tax products like sugary drinks, they can reduce suffering and save lives," Dr. Douglas Bettcher, director of the WHO's Department for the Prevention of Non-communicable Diseases, said in a statement. "They can also cut healthcare costs."

Obesity no longer just a problem of the rich

Obesity was once a problem of the rich several decades ago, but now with the affordability of sugary foods and drinks, it is now affecting populations in middle-income countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and China. Public health experts have since then begun studying policies for countries to fight against it.

One way they suggested is the introduction of a sugar tax on drinks such as iced teas, energy drinks, sodas and fruit drinks - which have been linked to tooth decay and diabetes besides obesity. Previously, the WHO has recommended this tax but in the recent report, it quantifies the effects of such a tax.

The agency gathered a panel of experts last year, who after an extensive review of the scientific literature, including mathematical modeling and studies of actual taxes applied in countries, produced concrete numbers.

In line with healthy eating, experts also suggested subsidies for fresh fruits and vegetables of 10% to 30% to increase the consumption of these more nutritional foods.

Sugary-drink taxes have been controversial in many countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Scandinavian countries, where the food industry was against the implementation such taxes.

Malaysia and Singapore considering sugar tax

In June this year, Malaysia was considering imposing a sugar tax on sugary drinks but await the approval of the Department of Finance. According to Healh Minister Datuk Seri Dr. S. Subramaniam, the discussion is ongoing and studies are being done on whether the abolished sugar subsidy in 2013 had the intended effect of reducing sugar consumption among people.

“If there has been an increase even after the subsidy removal, we will see if there are any other measures we can take,” he said.

Consumer groups were worried that retailers and food outlet operators might take advantage of the tax to hike up the prices of other foodstuffs not included in the tax. They do however acknowledge that it will help control food-related non-communicable diseases like diabetes and obesity.

In the neighbouring country, Singapore has also been considering a sugar tax since April this year. Like Malaysia, there are two sides to the debate, one calling to follow the footsteps of Mexico, which passed a sugary-drink tax in 2013, which prompted a substantial drop in consumption, and the other claiming that there is not enough substantial evidence to impose such a tax. A "wait and see" approach was suggested.

Health economist Phua Kai Hong from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS has said that Singapore will need the whole-of-government approach. "It's not just a public health perspective but... working with the tax authorities, security, enforcement, education, food industries... and coming up with an integrated approach."

Childhood obesity a worrying trend as well

The tax was also aimed at curbing childhood obesity. An estimated 42 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese last year and over the past 15 years, an 11 million increase was seen. 48% were from Asia and 25% were from Africa.

Dr. Francesco Branca, director of WHO's Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, said in a statement that sugary drinks contribute to unnecessary calories and have been a constant problem among children and the poor. An increase in prices would be effective for those groups.

"Nutritionally, people don't need any sugar in their diet," he added. MIMS

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