Colombia passes ambitious ‘junk food law’ to tackle lifestyle diseases

The Latin American country is one of the first in the world to introduce a health tax targeting ultra-processed foods

The Guardian | 10/11/2023

A new law in Colombia making it one of the first countries in the world to explicitly tax ultra-processed food has been hailed by campaigners and health experts who say it could set an example for other countries.

After years of campaigning, the “junk food law” came into force this month and a levy will be introduced gradually. An additional tax on affected foods will begin at 10% immediately, rising to 15% next year and reaching 20% in 2025.

“Countries around the world have been implementing health taxes, for example by taxing tobacco or sugary drinks, but few have extended them to processed foods,” said Franco Sassi, international health policy and economics professor at London’s Imperial College Business School. “Colombia’s model is more expansive than what we have seen before and could serve as an example to other countries.”

The tax targets ultra-processed products defined as industrially manufactured ready-to-eat foods, as well as those high in salt and saturated fat, such as chocolates or crisps. Sassi said some compromises had been made with the food industry, such as excluding certain processed foods, for example sausages, from the tax.

The Colombian diet is high in sodium, which has been linked to an increase in cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and heart failure, which account for almost a quarter of deaths annually. The average Colombian consumes 12g of salt a day – the highest rate in Latin America and among the highest in the world. Nearly a third of adults in the country have high blood pressure.

Other non-communicable diseases linked to diet and obesity, such as diabetes, are also problematic, with more than a third of deaths attributed to diabetes occurring among the under-70s.

Non-communicable diseases account for an estimated 76% of all deaths in Colombia.

“We want to avoid following the path of rich industrialised nations like the United States, where diet-linked diseases are a big problem,” said Beatriz Champagne, executive director of the Coalition for Americas’ Health, a Latin American advocacy group. “In terms of policies, Latin America is ahead of the curve.”

Sassi said: “What is remarkable about Colombia is that the tax policy is aligned with front-of-packaging labels.” The country, following its neighbours Ecuador and Peru, is introducing mandatory health warnings on foods with high content of unhealthy ingredients, such as sugar or saturated fat.

“The tax is applied to the same products that have the health warning label,” said Sassi. “This creates an information and a financial incentive for the consumer to avoid these products.”

Campaigners say they met robust opposition from the food and beverage industries in the years leading up to the law being enacted.

Esperanza Cerón Villaquirán from Educar Consumidores, an organisation which has been campaigning for health tax and product labelling since 2015, said: “Our team suffered all kinds of attacks and censorship prohibited in our country.

“The effort we invested was not only institutional but personal. We never let our guard down and we persisted.”

Cerón Villaquirán described the years of hard work leading up to the law being enacted as similar to a “difficult birth”.

Critics of the new tax said it will worsen Colombia’s struggle with inflation.

“The cost of living crisis and the major contribution that food prices make to inflation mean it’s very difficult in most countries to talk about introducing new taxes,” Sassi said. “But it’s possible to work within the framework of existing taxes to create incentives, for example by reducing VAT on healthier foods to subsidise increased tax on unhealthier options.”

“Ultimately, the objective of industrialised food production is not nutrition but making money,” said Champagne. “It means that producers don’t care if consumers eat food that will make them ill or make them die.”

Published in The Guardian