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As #COVID-19 drives action on obesity, could 'soda taxes' work for food?

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In both the UK and France, a number of parliamentarians are pushing for new taxes on certain food products, building on the example of existing soda taxes which charge levies for drinks with high sugar content. Advocates of the policies want governments to leverage their influence over pricing and address Europeans’ expanding waistlines via their wallets.

Indeed, across the EU, nutritional experts and public health officials are seeking new ways of promoting healthier eating habits, including the introduction of junk food advertising restrictions and fruit and vegetable subsidies. Public opinion seems to be in favour of an interventionist approach: 71% of Britons support subsidising healthy foods and almost half (45%) are in favour of taxing unhealthy ones. Similar trends have been observed across Europe.

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While these ideas seem on the surface to make straightforward logical sense, they bring with them a far thornier set of questions. How will European governments actually determine which foods are healthy and which are unhealthy? Which products will they tax, and which ones will they subsidise?

Tackling obesity head-on

It’s little surprise the British government is now ramping up plans to tackle the obesity epidemic. In 2015, 57% of the UK populace was overweight, with the World Health Organisation predicting that percentage will reach 69% by 2030; one in 10 British children are obese before they even begin their schooling. The coronavirus pandemic has further underlined the dangers of unhealthy eating. 8% of British COVID sufferers are morbidly obese, despite a mere 2.9% of the population falling into this weight classification.

The Prime Minister himself has personal experience with the dangers of this particular comorbidity. Boris Johnson was admitted to intensive care with coronavirus symptoms earlier this year, and while he remains clinically obese, his attitudes towards tackling the problem have clearly changed. In addition to shedding 14 lbs, Johnson has performed an about-turn on his views on food legislation, after previously dubbing levies on unhealthy products “sin stealth taxes” that were symptomatic of a “creeping nanny state”.

Johnson now advocates tighter regulation of junk food marketing and clearer calorie counts on restaurant menu items, while campaigners urge him to consider subsidising healthier options. A report from non-profit thinktank Demos found almost 20 million people in the UK cannot afford to eat healthier produce, while recent research indicates subsidising healthier foodstuffs would be more effective in fighting obesity than taxing unhealthier ones.

France appears to be following a similar course of action. A senatorial report released in late May received cross-party approval and could be enshrined in French law in the near future. Alongside detailed analysis of France’s deteriorating diets, the report contains 20 concrete proposals for solving the crisis. One of those proposals involves taxing unhealthy food products, which the study’s authors state should be defined in accordance with France’s Nutri-Score front of pack (FOP) labelling system – one of the candidates currently being considered by the European Commission for use across the European Union.

The battle of the FOP labels

While the recently unveiled Farm 2 Fork (F2F) strategy sets out a process for adopting a uniform FOP system across the entire EU, the Commission has thus far refrained from endorsing any one candidate. The debate over labels could have a drastic impact on how individual member states answer these key questions, not least because it is bringing the complexities of defining what constitutes a balanced diet into sharp focus.

The Nutri-Score FOP system operates upon a colour-coded sliding scale, with foods perceived to have the highest nutritional value graded “A” and shaded dark green, while those with the poorest content are given an “E” certification and marked red. Proponents argue Nutri-Score quickly and clearly demonstrates nutritional data to customers and helps them to make informed decisions. The system has already been adopted on a voluntary basis by countries including Belgium, Luxembourg, and of course France.

However, the system has numerous detractors. Most vocal among these is Italy, which argues that many of the country’s signature food products (including its famous olive oils and its cured meats) are penalised by Nutri-Score, even though the country’s traditional Mediterranean diet is lauded as one of the healthiest in the world.

As an alternative, Italy has proposed its own Nutrinform FOP label, which does not categorise foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather presents nutritional information in the form of a charging battery infographic. Nutrinform was approved by the European Commission (EC) for commercial use just this month, while agriculture ministers from other southern EU countries, including Romania and Greece, have spoken out in favour of the Italian position.

France itself seems to have noticed the potential repercussions of Nutri-Score when it comes to the country’s most important culinary products – and especially its cheeses. By the French government’s own admission, the Nutri-Score algorithm for calculating grades has been “adapted” when it comes to products like cheese and butter, lest the system undermine the appeal of French dairy products.

That special treatment has not satisfied all of Nutri-Score’s French critics, however, with figures like French senator Jean Bizet warning of potential “negative effects” on the dairy sector. Nutri-Score’s real-world effectiveness in influencing consumer decisions has also been questioned, with researchers finding the FOP label only improved the “nutritional quality” of the foods consumers ultimately bought by 2.5%.

The heated nature of this debate helps explain why the Commission is struggling to standardise FOP labelling across European shelves. It also reflects the deep levels of disagreement over what constitutes a balanced, healthy diet, both between and within individual EU member states. Before legislators or regulators in London, Paris, or other European capitals can make concrete policy decisions on taxing or subsidising particular foods, they will need to find satisfactory answers to the questions that will invariably surround their chosen criteria.

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Norway again postpones end to COVID lockdown

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A man wearing a protective mask carries shopping bags as he walks on the streets of Oslo following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Oslo, Norway. NTB Scanpix/Hakon Mosvold Larsen via REUTERS

Norway postponed for a second time on Wednesday (28 July) a planned final step in the reopening of its economy from pandemic lockdown, due to the continued spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, the government said, writes Terje Solsvik, Reuters.

"A new assessment will be made in mid-August," Health Minister Bent Hoeie told a news conference.

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Measures that will be kept in place to halt the spread of COVID-19 include bars and restaurants being limited to table service and limits of 20 people on gatherings in private homes.

The government in April launched a four-step plan to gradually remove most pandemic restrictions, and had completed the first three of those steps by mid-June.

On July 5, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said the fourth step could come in late July or early August at the earliest because of concerns about the Delta coronavirus variant. Read more.

About 80% of adults in Norway have received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 41% of adults are fully vaccinated, according to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Thanks to an early lockdown in March 2020 and tight restrictions that followed, the nation of 5.4 million people has seen one of Europe's lowest rates of mortality from the virus. Some 800 Norwegians have died from COVID-19.

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EU signs deal with GSK for supply of potential COVID drug

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Company logo of pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline is seen at their Stevenage facility, Britain October 26, 2020. REUTERS/Matthew Childs/File Photo

The European Union has signed a contract with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L) for the supply of up to 220,000 treatments of its investigational monoclonal antibody therapy sotrovimab against COVID-19, it said on Wednesday (28 July), write Francesco Guarascio with additional reporting by Jo Mason, Reuters.

The drug, which is developed together with U.S. firm Vir Biotechnology (VIR.O), can be used for the treatment of high-risk coronavirus patients with mild symptoms who do not require supplemental oxygen, according to the Commission.

The deal is a boost to GSK work on potential treatments for COVID-19 after the company played a limited role in the development of vaccines. Rather than making its own coronavirus shot, GSK has focused on supplying its booster to other developers and has partnered with Sanofi (SASY.PA) to develop a jab.

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GSK confirmed the deal in a statement on Wednesday, saying it represented "a crucial step forward for treating cases of COVID-19" in Europe.

The drug is currently being assessed by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) under a rolling review.

It has received emergency authorisation in the United States to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19 patients who are at high risk of developing a severe infection.

The contract has been backed by 16 of the 27 EU states, which can buy the drug only after it is approved by EMA or by national drug regulators. The price agreed for potential purchases has not been disclosed. A spokesman for the Commission declined to comment on the matter.

Monoclonal antibodies mimic natural antibodies that the body generates to fight infection.

The deal with GSK follows a contract the EU signed in April with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche (ROG.S) to secure about 55,000 doses of a potential treatment based on a cocktail of monoclonal antibodies developed by Roche together with U.S. drugmaker Regeneron (REGN.O). Read more.

Apart from monoclonal treatments, the only other anti-COVID drug the EU has bought is Gilead's (GILD.O) remdesivir, an antiviral medicine. Last year, the EU reserved half a million courses after the drug obtained a conditional EU approval.

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Coronavirus disinformation: Online platforms take new actions and call for more players to join the Code of Practice

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The Commission has published the reports by Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Microsoft and Google on measures taken in June to combat coronavirus disinformation. The current signatories and the Commission are also calling on new companies to join the Code of Practice on disinformation as it will help broaden its impact and make it more effective. Values and Transparency Vice President Věra Jourová said: “The COVID-19 disinformation monitoring programme has allowed to keep track of important actions put in place by online platforms. With new variants of the virus spreading and vaccinations continuing at full speed, it is crucial to deliver on the commitments. We look forward to the strengthening of the Code of Practice.”

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton added: “The EU stood by its promise to deliver enough doses to safely vaccinate every EU citizen. All stakeholders now need to assume their responsibility to beat vaccine hesitancy spurred by disinformation. While we are strengthening the Code of Practice with platforms and signatories, we are calling for new signatories to join the fight against disinformation”. 

For example, TikTok's campaign supporting vaccination, with the Irish government, reached over one million views and over 20,000 likes. Google continued to work with public health authorities to show information about vaccination locations in Google Search and Maps, a feature available in France, Poland, Italy, Ireland, and Switzerland. On Twitter, users can now train automated systems to better identify violations of the platform's COVID-19 disinformation policy.

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Microsoft extended its partnership with NewsGuard, an Edge extension that warns about websites spreading disinformation. Facebook cooperated with international health authorities to increase public awareness of vaccine efficacy and safety and with Michigan State University (MSU) researchers to better detect and attribute deepfakes. These joint efforts need to continue in view of the persisting and complex challenges that online disinformation still presents. The Commission's COVID-19 disinformation monitoring programme has been extended until the end of 2021 and reports will now be published every two months. The next set of reports will be published in September. Following the recently published Guidance, the signatories have kicked off the process to strengthen the Code and launched a joint call for interest for potential new signatories.

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