WHO Unveils Fiscal Guidelines for Healthier Diet Promotion

A new guideline published today by the World Health Organization provides recommendations on measures for creating food environments that enable healthy dietary decisions. This includes fiscal policies that discourage consuming foods that contribute to unhealthy diets and encourage consuming healthier foods through subsidies and other support.

The current food environment in which many people live, work, and spend their daily lives consists of highly processed and readily available foods high in unhealthy fats, sugars, and sodium. Many of these foods are also heavily marketed and relatively cheap. As a result, consumers are often challenged to make healthy food-related decisions. Unhealthy diets are now a leading global public health risk, contributing to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancers.

This guideline reflects growing evidence which suggests that taxes on unhealthy foods like sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) can lead to lower demand and consumption. Inversely, subsidies for foods that contribute to a healthy diet, such as fruits and vegetables, make these foods more accessible and affordable. This in turn encourages their consumption, leading to increased sales and positive shifts in consumer behaviour. Implementing fiscal policies based on these insights is a promising approach to nudge consumers towards better food choices, making the healthier choice the easier choice.

"Fiscal policies, including taxes and subsidies, have the potential to influence consumer and market behaviour through their impact on prices and affordability of products. Subsidies can encourage consumption of healthy products, while taxes can discourage consumption of health-harming products and encourage industry to reformulate its products", says Dr Ruediger Krech, Director of the Department of Health Promotion, at the World Health Organization.

Governments play a leading role in reducing the burden of diet related NCDs, addressing malnutrition in all its forms, and promoting healthy diets. An increasing number of countries have taken steps to implement fiscal policies that promote healthy diets, with 115 Member States taxing sugar-sweetened beverages nationally as of February 2024.

An additional 41 Member States have applied national taxation on a variety of unhealthy food categories. However, fewer countries have applied subsidies to encourage the consumption of healthier foods and beverages or taken steps to remove taxes on healthy foods and subsidies on unhealthy foods.

"Governments around the world have begun to act – most notably by taxing sugar-sweetened beverages. Despite progress in this area, they continue to face challenges in developing fiscal policies that promote healthy diets. This guideline will be a valuable tool for Member States to create more health-enabling food environments at every level," said Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at the World Health Organization.

This WHO guideline provides Member States with evidence-based recommendations for implementing fiscal policies on healthy diets, a key measure within a comprehensive and mutually reinforcing suite of approaches to improve population health.

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