May 15, 2023
On May 9, the Global Center for Legal Innovation on Food Environments, an initiative of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Colombian Constitutional Court to support the constitutionality of the tax on ultra-processed, sugar-sweetened beverages adopted by Colombia late last year, based on arguments derived from international human rights law and related to public health.
In this submission, the Global Center highlights the close relationship between tax policy and the effective enjoyment of human rights. Specifically, the Center discusses the role of taxation in creating healthy environments that protect people from risk factors for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) — including unhealthy diets — and thus promote the rights to health, to adequate food, and other interrelated rights. Given the human rights and public health implications of NCDs, States are obligated to take measures aimed at modifying environments to make them healthier, including those aimed at discouraging the consumption of products associated with the development of NCDs, such as ultra-processed food and beverages like sugar-sweetened beverages.
The price of ultra-processed products is neither natural nor neutral, as it determines their economic accessibility and is used by the companies to encourage their consumption, — through price reduction strategies for example. Price, therefore, is a factor that must be addressed by the State to materialize its human rights obligations.
Taxes on sugar-sweetened, ultra-processed beverages, such as the one adopted in Colombia, focus precisely on preventing consumption of these products, in order to promote a higher level of health. In particular, this type of tax benefits people and populations in situations of socioeconomic vulnerability who are more exposed to risk factors for NCDs. Additionally, health taxes contribute to raising the necessary resources for the promotion of rights that depend on them.
In its amicus brief, the Global Center argued that the tax on ultra-processed, sugar-sweetened beverages passes a comprehensive analysis of progressivity, as well as compliance with human rights standards. First, NCDs affect people and groups in vulnerable situations more often and with greater intensity — a reality that should be addressed by States through various measures, including health taxes. Second, people in situations of socioeconomic vulnerability are also more sensitive to changes in price. Therefore, although the economic impact of the tax on poorer households that consume sugar-sweetened beverages may be greater in the short term, this impact is diluted as time goes by and as the benefits of decreased consumption of these products materialize. Third, the systemic impact assessment of health taxes, considering the effects of tax policy as a whole, proves that health taxes have positive impacts in the long term for the realization of rights and for promoting equity. From this systemic perspective, it is clear that health taxes effectively contribute to the welfare of society, as well as to the materialization of human rights. Therefore, possible financial impacts in the short term are neutralized and outweighed by the positive effects on the welfare of vulnerable people and their families, which shows that, far from being regressive or indirectly discriminatory, taxes can be progressive and encourage real equality in terms of the burden of NCDs.
Based on these and other arguments, the Global Center for Legal Innovation on Food Environments found that the tax on ultra-processed, sugar-sweetened beverages adopted in Colombia is a measure that protects public health, materializes the State’s human rights obligations, and should therefore be declared constitutional.