Romania, a ‘sugar tax’ to mitigate obesity

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sugar tax to mitigate obesity

Romania introduces a ‘sugar tax’ – through excise duty on sugar and increase in the VAT rate on food products with high sugar content – ​​with the aim of mitigating the epidemic prevalence of obesity and serious related diseases. An indispensable policy that WHO Europe recommends, so far in vain with rare exceptions, together with other health policies hitherto effectively opposed by the ‘Big Food’ lobbies.

1) WHO Europe, data on obesity and overweight

‘WHO European Regional Obesity Report 2022’, as we have seen, highlighted a series of worrying data on obesity and overweight:

– obesity and overweight have reached epidemic proportions in the European macro-region, with a higher prevalence among males (63%) than females (54%),

– the prevalence of obesity and overweight, by age group, affects almost 2/3 of adults and 1/3 of children, with continuously growing rates,

– obesity is a risk factor for various NCDs (Non-Communicable Diseases) including 13 types of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases,

– overweight and obesity are in fourth place in Europe among the risk factors for premature mortality after hypertension, food poisoning and tobacco (1,2).

2) Strategies to be adopted at national level

Obesity is influenced by the environment, so it is important to consider the problem from the perspective of each life stage. The lives of children and adolescents, for example, are influenced by digital environments, including the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks.

Over time we have learned that a single policy does not work. To succeed as a country or region, we need a comprehensive package of interventions. No country  was able to introduce all these policies at once. It is important to prioritize two or three policies to implement now and have a workable plan for introducing the rest of the interventions.

Restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, taxing sugary drinks and improving health system response in managing obesity are some of the policies now most actively discussed in the WHO European Region ‘ (Dr. Kremlin Wickramasinghe, WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of NCDs, responsible). (3)

3) Romania, ‘sugar tax’ and other fiscal measures

Financial law 296/2023 – approved by the Bucharest Parliament on 26 October 2023 (4) – introduced the ‘sugar tax’ and other fiscal measures:

a) increase in value added tax (VAT or VAT), from 9% to 19%, on:

  • foods with added sugars, the total sugar content of which is at least 10 g/100 g of product, other than bread and biscuits‘,
  • alcoholic drinks and non-alcoholic beer (Article 39),

b) new non-harmonised excise duties on:

  • soft drinks with added sugars and a total sugar content between 5 g-8 g/100 ml,
  • ‘soft drinks’ with added sugars and a total sugar content exceeding 8 g/100 ml (Article 55).

Production, intra-EU purchase or import of products subject to non-harmonised excise duty are subject to prior notification (in the case of soft drinks with added sugar) or authorization (in the case of other products) to the competent customs authority.

3.1) Added sugars, definition

Dangers to human health of sugars added to foods were highlighted by EFSA in the scientific opinion (2022) which therefore recommends reducing their consumption to a minimum, in quantity and frequency. (5) The introduction of the ‘soda tax’ in the UK has stimulated the industry to halve the sugar content in soft drinks, as we have seen, with appreciable results in terms of public health (6,7).

Romania has offered a definition of added sugars, in the law under consideration, which includes ‘beet sugar, cane sugar, crystalline sucrose, invert sugar, dextrose, molasses, honey sugars, molasses and syrups such as malt syrup, fruit, rice malt syrup, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, glucose syrup, glucose-fructose, fructose, sucrose, glucose, lactose, hydrolyzed lactose and galactose added as ingredients, sugars contained in nectars such as coconut blossom nectar, date nectar, agave nectar, sugars from unsweetened fruit juices, fruit juice concentrate, sugars from fruit purees and jam‘ (Romania, law 296/2023, article 55).

4) European Union, the darkness

The recommendations of WHO Europe on the management of public health risks linked to obesity and overweight continue to be ignored by an increasingly cowardly European Commission, which persists in disregarding its duties to:

– introduce nutritional profiles, as established in the Nutrition and Health Regulation (EC) No 1924/06, article 4, within a deadline that has now expired almost fifteen years ago, (8)

– define a mandatory FOPNL (Front-of-pack nutrition labelling) system, such as the NutriScore already successfully applied in 9 European countries, (9)

– ban obesogenic marketing, following the example of the ‘Health and Care Bill’ in the UK. (10)

5) Provisional conclusions

WHO Europe had already indicated in 2021 the English strategy as a model to follow for the reduction of energy intake (kcal) and sugars in the population’s diet. (11) But the only priority of European politicians remains that of favoring corporations. A shame that is already costing public health budgets dearly.

Dario Dongo

Footnotes

(1) Sabrina Bergamini, Dario Dongo. Obesity, childhood obesity and marketing. WHO Europe 2022 report. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 16.6.22

(2) Dario Dongo, Sabrina Bergamini. Sugared and sweetened drinks, sweet snacks. Studies on premature mortality and sugar tax. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 10.9.19

(3) WHO European Regional Obesity Report reveals extent of health challenge across Europe. WHO Europe https://tinyurl.com/55t9vvre

(4) Law no. 296 of October 26, 2023, regarding some fiscal-budgetary measures to ensure Romania’s long-term financial sustainability  https://tinyurl.com/4fety96b

(5) Marta Strinati. The harmful role of sugars in the diet, EFSA opinion. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 1.3.22

(6) Dario Dongo, Carlotta Suardi. Orange, in Italy double ration of sugar. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 17.7.18

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

(8) Dario Dongo. Nutritional profiles, 10 years in hiding in Brussels. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 19.1.19

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

(10) Dario Dongo. England, stop advertising junk food thanks to the Health and Care Bill. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 2.5.22

(11) Marta Strinati. WHO chooses the UK model to reduce calories and sugar in the Old Continent. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 2.10.21

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.