Colombia, the tax on ultra-processed foods is underway

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Colombia health tax

Colombia has introduced a ‘health tax’, effective 1 November 2023, on ultra-processed food products with high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS). (1) This measure represents a disruptive innovation in fiscal measures to protect public health, so far concentrated in the taxation of only sugars (sugar tax) and/or sugary drinks (soda tax), as well as alcohol and tobacco.

Colombia, the impact of ultra-processed foods

The introduction of the ‘health tax’ is motivated by the health risks related to excessive consumption of salt (sodium), which in Colombia reaches a daily average of 12 grams per capita, more than double the maximum threshold recommended by WHO. (2)

The consequences are clear:

– almost a quarter of deaths each year in Colombia are caused by cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke and heart failure, related to excess salt/sodium in the diet,

– about a third of adults in the country suffer from hypertension, also related to excessive salt intake,

– over a third of deaths attributed to diabetes, which in turn is related to excess salt (and sugar), occurs among those under 70. (3)

The role of ‘warning labels’

The ‘health tax’ it concerns 21 products of the 443 items that make up the basic basket with which inflation is measured. This includes sausages (except for some Colombian specialties, such as salchichón), French fries, chocolate biscuits, sweets, cakes and sugary soft drinks.

These are essentially all foods and drinks identified with specific ‘warning labels’ on the front of the labels. Which have been adopted for years in various Latin American countries, and from 2023 also in Colombia.

FAO Hand in Hand Geospatial Platform, 2022, prepared by the authors with information from: MSP, 2014; NCB, 2015; Gaceta Oficial del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2016; El Peruano, 2018; IMPO, 2018, 2021; SEGOB, 2019; Anvisa, 2020a; Boletín Oficial de la República Argentina, 2021,2022; Congress of Colombia, 2021.

Taxation levels

The drinks in Colombia are now subject to a minimal tax, although variable depending on the sugar content:

– from 18 to 28 Colombian pesos (€0,0042-0,0065), when the sugar varies from 6 to 10 g per 100 ml,
– between 35 and 55 pesos (€0,0081 – 0,013), over 10 g of sugar per 100 ml.

Ultraprocessed foods are instead subjected to a single, more substantial tax of increasing level:

  • 10% in November-December 2023,
  • 15% in 2024,
  • 20% from 2025.

The role of ‘Corporations’

Big Food and Big Soda have obviously hindered the taxation of ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks in Colombia, with well-known strategies appearing to have had an effect in mitigating the ‘soda tax’. (4)

The rhetoric of the ‘Corporations’ has relied on a populist polemic, accusing the government of hitting low-income sections of the population, who mainly feed on these unbalanced and cheap foods, with price increases.

‘Part of the problem’ or ‘part of the solution’?

The experience of taxation of drinks in the UK has shown how the industry – only if forced – is able to reformulate products to reduce sugars, and thus reduce their negative impact on public health. (5)

The transition of role of the industry – from being ‘part of the problem’ to becoming ‘part of the solution’ – requires courage and responsibility. Even in the Old Continent, where Big Food and Big Drink persist in opposing the adoption of NutriScore as an indispensable tool for FOPNL (Front of Pack Nutrition Label). (6)

Marta Strinati

Footnotes

(1) Healthy tax in Colombia: list of departments in which you will pay the most taxes for consuming these foods. El Pais. 2.11.23 https://www.elpais.com.co/colombia/impuesto-saludable-en-colombia-lista-de-departamentos-en-los-que-se-pagaran-mas-impuestos-por-consumir-estos-alimentos-0209.html

(2) Marta Strinati. WHO report cards on national policies to reduce salt consumption. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 22.3.23

(3) Weronika Strzyżyńska. Colombia passes ambitious ‘junk food law’ to tackle lifestyle diseases. The Guardian. 10.11.23  https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2023/nov/10/colombia-junk-food-tax-improve-health-acc

(4) Marta Strinati, Dario Dongo. Soda tax, here’s how Big Food counteracts health policies. And how to react. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 7.10.22

(5) Marta Strinati. Sugar tax. 5.000 fewer cases of obesity among British girls. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 28.1.23

(6) Marta Strinati, Dario Dongo. NutriScore, a report by 320 scientists to urge the European Commission. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 12.5.23

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Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".