Taxes key in war on 'lifestyle' disease: health experts

Tobacco claims nearly seven million lives yearly from cancer and other lung diseases, accounting for about one-in-10 deaths worl
Tobacco claims nearly seven million lives yearly from cancer and other lung diseases, accounting for about one-in-10 deaths worldwide, and a million in China alone

Global health leaders declared war on lifestyle diseases Thursday, decrying the impact of tobacco, alcohol and soft drinks on the world's poor, while calling for taxes to curb consumption and finance healthcare.

In half-a-dozen studies in The Lancet, a leading health journal, experts detailed the link between poverty and (NDCs) such as stroke and diabetes, and made the case for consumer taxes opposed by industry and many politicians.

NDCs, which also include heart disease and cancer, "are a major cause and consequence of poverty worldwide," said Rachel Nugent, vice-president of RTI International, a non-profit health policy institute in Seattle, and chair of The Lancet Taskforce on Non-Communicable Diseases (NDCs).

Many of the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals, which run to 2030, will remain out of reach unless governments invest in policies that break the chains binding unhealthy habits and so-called "lifestyle" diseases, she said.

"Every year, almost 100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty because of out-of-pocket health spending," Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, wrote in a comment, also in The Lancet.

"The costs of treating NDCs are a major contributor to this global scandal."

NDCs are responsible for 38 million deaths—nearly half before the age of 70—each year, a large share of them caused or aggravated by smoking, excessive drinking and/or unhealthy diets, according to the WHO.

One of the UN's 2030 goals is to reduce deaths from NDCs by a third.

In 2011, world leaders at the UN general assembly pledged to develop national plans for the prevention and control of NDCs, and set targets to benchmark progress. But few have followed through.

"There has been a broad failure globally and in countries to act on the commitments made in the 2011 Political Declaration," Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, and senior editor Jennifer Sargent, wrote in an editorial.

Harm of taxes 'overstated'

One of the most controversial remedies proposed for getting people to cut back on smoking and the consumption of alcohol or soda pop is point-of-sale taxes.

Opponents argue such levies penalise the poor most of all, and amount to a regressive tariff.

The new studies show a more nuanced reality.

Research looking at the impact of price hikes in 13 poor, emerging and wealthy countries, for example, found that—for alcohol and sugary snacks—low-income households were more likely than wealthy ones to cut back, leading to incremental health gains.

But even if they pay more as a percentage of their income, families can benefit in other ways, the researchers argued.

"The extra tax expenditures involved should not deter governments from implementing a policy that may disproportionately benefit the and welfare of lower-income households," said Franco Sassi, a researcher at Imperial College Business School in London.

Additional tax revenue gained should be set aside for "pro-poor programmes", he added.

For former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has given away more than a billion dollars to curb tobacco use over the last decade, the benefits are obvious.

"Raising taxes on tobacco is the most effective way to drive down smoking rates, particularly among young people," he told AFP. "It is also the least widespread of all the proven .

"If we can help more governments raise , we could make a very big difference in smoking rates, and also raise revenue that countries can invest in other vital services," he added.

Tobacco claims nearly seven million lives yearly from cancer and other lung diseases, accounting for about one-in-10 deaths worldwide, and a million in China alone, according to the WHO.

"The evidence suggests that concerns about higher taxes on , alcohol and harming the poor are overstated," said Nugent.

Explore further

Big Tobacco must be 'held accountable': Michael Bloomberg

More information: The Lancet Taskforce on NCDs and economics:
Journal information: The Lancet

© 2018 AFP

Citation: Taxes key in war on 'lifestyle' disease: health experts (2018, April 4) retrieved 19 July 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Apr 04, 2018
Ahh, one of the many 'joys' of government healthcare.... more government equals less freedom. Now there are a lot of people with a serf mentality that aren't bothered by such an outcome but for many others it's just one more step toward tyranny.

Apr 05, 2018
"Additional tax revenue gained should be set aside for "pro-poor programmes""

And when the people consume less alcohol, tobacco and soft drinks, this tax revenue diminishes and the commitments made by the government to pro-poor programmes do not.

That's the catch-22 of any punitive consumption taxes. The government taxes the people, and then is forced to spend the money to fix the problems they cause by taxing people.

The tax can only work if it diminishes the real income of the person to the point where they can't afford to buy the product, but as the government keeps giving the money back, the same people save money elsewhere and can again afford to buy the cigarettes, alcohol and soft drinks.

After some amount of initial success, the government gets trapped because they have to maintain the tax revenue to keep paying their commitments. The only thing that does change is the added cost of the pointless boomerang wealth redistribution.

Apr 05, 2018
If you take a look of what sort of things most governments like to punish by taxation, you'll find that they are rather carefuly chosen to be goods with inflexible demand, or unavoidable byproducts.

Such as, gasoline, cars, food, housing, carbon dioxide etc.

The rationale for these consumption taxes is offically to reduce overconsumption, diminish pollution etc. but very little of that actually happens.

If the government put a big tax on lollipops on the argument that it causes dental cavities and crooked teeth in children, very quickly the shops would stop selling them and the tax revenue would be zero. That's not what the government wants to happen. They want to collect money, so they'll add just a little ineffective slap on the wrist so people would still keep buying lollipops - the optimum tax percentage.

Or they pick some other product that the people can't avoid buying, where they can really crank up the thumbscrew and collect a lot of money.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more