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Can taxation curb obesity Food and drinks high in sugar should be taxed just like cigarettes, say economists who believe it is the only way to combat the global crisis in obesity. "When two-thirds of the population of countries like Australia or the US are obese or overweight, you can't handle the problem with simple solutions like education," Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told a meeting of agricultural economists on Queensland's Gold Coast this week. Instead, he says, governments need to impose tariffs to replicate the success of tobacco taxes in reducing smoking. The number of overweight or obese people in the world now exceeds the number of undernourished, and there are no signs that the spread of obesity and its associated diseases such as diabetes are slowing. The number of overweight people is increasing at over 1 per cent per year in many countries, says Popkin. He proposes a series of tailor-made pricing incentives. Wealthy countries such as the US and Australia would tax sugar added to drinks, while China should target cheap, widely consumed high-calorie oils such as soybean. "The impact of taxes, subsidies and trade restrictions on consumption needs to be carefully looked at," agrees Boyd Swinburn of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. This week he and colleagues argue in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity (vol 1, p 133) that the economic drive towards eating more and exercising less represents a failure of the free market that governments must act to reverse.

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