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Sugar tax will be a sweet move

Sep 05 2016 06:42
Mandi Smallhorne

WHEN I was a kid, we never drank anything other than water or ‘icing cold milk’, as my brother called it. (We lived on a farm and the milk arrived in actual milk churns – then it sat in the fridge in bottles, the cream slowly drifting to the top.)

On very rare occasions we went to the drive-in, more than an hour’s drive away, over a mountain pass, and there we got to eat hamburgers and drink a little glass bottle of Coca-Cola. (That was about half the size of the standard soda can today.)

Not long ago, I was with some thirsty schoolchildren; it seemed the only possible solution to their thirst came in a large purple-labelled bottle, fizzy and sickly sweet. (Hardly surprising, given that one study showed that half the ads for this kind of beverage in Soweto are to be found outside schools.) Sugar-sweetened beverages instead of water: a recipe for disaster.

You are unlikely to find anyone in public health who disagrees. Across the world, increases in consumption of added sugars – and specifically sugar sweetened beverages, commonly referred to in research papers as ‘SSBs’ – have been linked to bad news for public health.

Here’s just one random example: “In addition to weight gain, higher consumption of SSBs is associated with development of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. These data provide empirical evidence that intake of SSBs should be limited to reduce obesity-related risk of chronic metabolic diseases.” (Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Risk of Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes, Vasanti S Malik et al, Diabetes Care November 2010)

Professor Karen Hofman of the Wits School of Public Health has been quoted as saying that “the obesity epidemic will sink South Africa’s healthcare system”. It’s been predicted that obesity and related conditions like Type 2 diabetes will soon – in a matter of years rather than decades – overtake the impact of HIV on our creaking, shuddering health system.

That adds up to big money sucked from the public purse.

So across the world, and in South Africa, public health authorities and governments are taking steps. They started with the standard intervention – education. But who can fight the advertising reach, power and gloss of a big player like the soft-drink industry?

The next step is to tax SSBs. 2014, Berkeley California: A year later “Consumption of SSBs decreased 21% in Berkeley and increased 4% in comparison cities. Water consumption increased more in Berkeley (+63%) than in comparison cities.

Mexico, 2015: “One of the world's highest soda taxes appears to be working. After just one year, purchases of sugary drinks in Mexico are down 12%, a new study shows. Even better, the biggest reductions have occurred among the poor, who can least afford health care.” (Bloomberg View, 15 January 2016)

Now it’s our turn. In July, National Treasury proposed a 20% tax on sugary drinks… and natch, the beverages industry (which is huge and planning on getting bigger) have not been happy campers. They’ve been making a big fuss, with big claims about how terrible and ineffective it will all be.

Mapule Ncanywa, executive director of “BevSA, an industry association that represents the collective interests of nonalcoholic beverage manufacturers”, wrote an article which included this gasp-making statement: “…there is little evidence to link sugar directly to obesity rates”.

Oh? How about this: “Researchers from the University of Reading, the University of Cambridge, and Arizona State University compared sugar intake in 1 700 people in Norfolk, UK […] They found that those who actually consumed the most sugar, as measured with the urine test, were 54% more likely to be overweight…” I plucked that one out of the first couple of studies to come up in a casual Google search.

Meanwhile, another commentator thinks that this is the action of that sad entity, a 'nanny state', which is forcing healthier choices on citizens. We should, they say, be able to choose to drink SSBs until we pop, just as we are free to choose to jump out of aeroplanes at the risk of severe injury. If I want to take the risk, that’s my business, he says.

READ: Frans Cronje: Stepping towards a ‘Nanny State’? Why sugar tax should be avoided

Yeah, but: since relatively few people do jump out of aeroplanes, the health cost is insignificant and I likely don’t feel it in my tax – whereas the cost of obesity et al is so high that it will have a huge impact. On me. I don’t like that idea.

We should remove tax from something good for us – as we already do with fruit and veg, for example – and pile it on the bad (as we do on cigarettes), precisely because it represents a cost to the whole of society, which we will all wind up paying: “If a good has a negative externality (cost to third party), then there is a strong case for the government to put a tax on a good and make consumers pay the full social cost – and not just the market price. This higher tax reduces demand, raises revenue for government and achieve[s] a more socially efficient level of consumption.”

Bring it on, say I.

PS: I gave up sugar completely a few years ago – it’s not hard!

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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