Backlash from top international obesity experts after Israel scraps soft drink tax

Specialists say ‘science is clear’ on sweetened drinks, urge rethink; Israeli scholar claims canceling tax is ‘an act of public health malpractice and an outrage’

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

File: Coca Cola beverages on sale in Israel (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
File: Coca Cola beverages on sale in Israel (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Israeli health experts have been livid over the new government’s decision to cancel the so-called soft drink tax, and leading obesity scholars from around the world are echoing their criticism.

Some 32 top researchers from the US, UK, Mexico and elsewhere have written to two Israeli ministers urging them to reinstate the tax for the sake of public health.

Signatories of the international letter include Dr. Tim Lobstein, director of policy at the World Obesity Federation; and Dr. Juan Rivera Dommarco, director of Mexico’s national Center for Research in Nutrition and Health, alongside scholars from prestigious universities.

The Israeli expert Prof. Aron Troen, a member of the World Federation of Public Health Associations, has called the decision an “outrage,” noting that the tax has reduced the consumption of sweetened drinks by about 10 percent since its introduction a year ago.

“People in the Federation and other such organizations are alarmed by the harmful precedent this set for the world,” he told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

The far-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich scrapped the soft drink tax and a tax on disposable plasticware, both introduced a year ago, in his first move as finance minister earlier this week.

He spoke before the November election about his opposition to the soft drink tax, which varies based on the sugar concentration of drinks, and called it “delusional.” He framed it as a cost-of-living issue rather than a public health issue.

Bezalel Smotrich, now Israel’s finance minister, is seen after coalition talks, outside a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

United Torah Judaism lawmaker Moshe Gafni praised Smotrich’s decision. “This was one of the things we promised to carry out immediately upon the establishment of the government, and I am very pleased about it,” he said.

But the health researchers who wrote to Smotrich and Health Minister Aryeh Deri on Wednesday say the health cost of scrapping the tax is obvious.

“We support the reinstatement of the sugar-sweetened beverages tax you removed,” they wrote. “The science is clear; excess sugar consumption is a major cause of obesity and its related diseases.

“Clearly global scholars, the World Health Organization, the International Diabetes Federation and global research have shown that sugar, particularly in beverages, brings with it great harm and no true benefits.”

They added: “Sugar-sweetened beverages taxes are particularly effective in reducing consumption and improving health among lower income consumers because this group is more responsive to price increases. This is important because lower income people often suffer disproportionately from the ill effects of obesity.”

Aron Troen, Hebrew University professor and a member of the World Federation of Public Health Associations (courtesy of Aron Troen)

Troen, a Hebrew University professor, welcomed the response of his international colleagues.

“The fact they responded shows what an important issue we’re dealing with,” he said. “Canceling the tax is irresponsible, an act of public health malpractice, and an outrage.”

He argued: “We’re losing an important way to reduce consumption and bring about a shift in people’s behavior. Diabetes is a regressive disease that harms the poor primarily. The health costs to the poor from over-consuming sweet beverages are enormous and in view of this we’re actually talking about a progressive tax. A health issue has been turned into a political wedge.”

Prof. Ronit Calderon-Margalit, a public health expert at Hadassah Medical Center and Hebrew University, said that Israel struggles with high obesity rates and growing cases of diabetes, with a particular jump in the last two years.

“It has been shown that consumption of sweetened drinks fell since the tax was introduced, so the parties revoking this are neglecting the health of voters, as in a sense they are promoting these drinks,” Calderon-Margalit told The Times of Israel. “It’s demagogic.”

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