WHO says no to sugary drinks at headquarters

Ring pulls on beverage cans. Photo by: freefoodphotos.com / CC BY

The World Health Organization today has taken its own commitment to health to a new level.

WHO for years has recommended adults and children reduce their daily sugar intake to approximately 12 teaspoons a day. Now, as part of its “Walk the Talk” initiative — which promotes a healthier lifestyle among the populations of its member countries as well as its own staff — the U.N. health body has banned all sugary beverages from its headquarters.

This means staff and visitors to the organization’s office in Geneva will no longer be able to buy high sugar soft drinks or fruit juices from its cafeteria, vending machines or coffee shops. Such beverages will also no longer be served during meetings at headquarters. Sugar packets, however, will continue to be served for tea and coffee.

The decision, which officially kicks off on World Obesity Day, is a product of months of trials, discussions with staff associations, with building management and with vendors, and staff surveys, according to Chizuru Nishida, ‎WHO coordinator of nutrition policy and scientific advice at the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development. On April 7, which is World Health Day, the U.N. aid agency removed a selection of drinks that contain more than 50 grams of sugar from the shops within headquarters. Later, they conducted a staff survey in which 80 percent of feedback supported the permanent removal of these drinks.

The decision, pushed mainly by WHO’s departments for nutrition and noncommunicable diseases prevention, is only the first step of a dietary component the health aid agency plans to create a healthier food environment for its staff and visitors, Nishida told Devex.

“We plan to progressively implement and include healthier snacks at restaurants, coffee shops and vending machines,” she said.

The department of nutrition is also now working on an evidence review of nonsugar sweeteners, she added.

“As soon as we issued that guideline [on sugar in 2015], there were questions from member states on whether WHO recommends diet drinks. But unfortunately, we don’t yet have specific guidance on nonsugar sweeteners,” she said.

WHO hopes the initiative will trickle down to its regional and country offices, although Nishida said some of its regional offices — such as the Pan American Health Organization in Washington, D.C., and the WHO Western Pacific region office in Manila — have already taken on or started similar discussions prior to the HQ decision.

The WHO today has also launched a report detailing evidence of the use of taxation in addressing unhealthy diets, including the consumption of sugary drinks.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.

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