Nixing sugar tax, Israeli government dealt ‘grievous blow to health’ – world experts

Responding to abolition of tariff on sweetened soft drinks, global scholars also argue move ‘seriously tarnishes Israel’s international standing’ in medical community

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

Illustrative: An elderly man sits next to a soda-vending machine selling Coca-Cola in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Illustrative: An elderly man sits next to a soda-vending machine selling Coca-Cola in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

The new government’s decision to abolish the tax on soft drinks “seriously tarnishes Israel’s international standing” in the medical community, leading health scholars have claimed in a top journal.

Writing in The Lancet, they called the move a “grievous blow to public health.” An Israeli signatory, Prof. Hagai Levine, said the critique is a “wake-up call” indicating that ending the levy “could severely damage Israel’s scientific relations.”

In January, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich scrapped the soft drink tax and a tax on disposable plasticware, both introduced a year ago, in his first move as minister, in moves that pleased his Haredi partners, who are heavy consumers of such products.

Smotrich 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 “outlandish.” He framed it as a cost-of-living issue rather than a public health issue.

But there was immediate criticism domestically, followed by international criticism. Thirty-two top researchers from the US, UK, Mexico and elsewhere wrote to two Israeli ministers urging them to reinstate the tax for the sake of public health.

Bezalel Smotrich, now finance minister, at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, November 27, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The strongly worded critique published in The Lancet on Wednesday was signed by nine scholars, led by members of the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA) working groups for Non-Communicable Diseases Prevention and for Health Promotion and Policy.

They stated that they were writing to “convey extreme concern over the Israeli finance minister’s decision to revoke the sweetened beverage tax as his first act on his first day in office.”

They complained that the decision was made without listening to independent experts, and said that it “runs counter to clear guidance from international agencies such as World Health Organization and The World Bank, as well as evidence from the Bank of Israel itself, showing that the tax substantially reduced sweetened beverage consumption.”

Signatories include WFPHA working group members Prof. Ana Paula Bortoletto Martins of São Paulo University and Ildefonso Hernandez Aguado of University Mihuel Hernández. Prof. Martin Caraher of the University of London and Amy Lazarus Yaroch from the US-based Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition also signed.

Levine, Hebrew University epidemiologist and doctors’ union leader, was one of two Israeli signatories. He told The Times of Israel that the government ignores the criticism at its peril.

“Scientific and health resilience is based on Israeli leadership in the discovery of scientific evidence and its application in health policy,” he said. “Our colleagues in the global health community fear, and rightly so, that the hasty decision, devoid of health or economic logic, sends a harmful message that will sabotage the efforts of the countries of the world to deal with the obesity epidemic.

“There is still an opportunity to make amends, but if there is no change in the intention to abolish the tax, this could severely damage Israel’s scientific relations, in addition to the serious damage to public health.”

Some 85 countries have sugar taxes, including Mexico, South Africa, the United Kingdom and multiple European countries, according to the World Health Organization.

The scholars wrote in The Lancet that the policy change “will undoubtedly harm lives and increase the direct and indirect economic costs to Israel’s health system and economy, both in the short term and long term.”

They argued that it “undermines hard-won progress made elsewhere around the world,” and represents a “serious setback for evidence-based public health policy.”

In their view the decision “will be seen as prioritizing sectorial political interests over incontrovertible scientific evidence and public health best practice.”

They added: “This decision seriously tarnishes Israel’s international standing, its medical, scientific, and technological leadership, and reputation as an exemplar of sensible, evidence-based policy.”

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